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ConflictsSouth Korea

What's next for the South Korea-US defense pact?

Julian Ryall
September 27, 2023

Tanks, howitzers and advanced missile systems all featured in a Seoul parade as South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol warned that any nuclear attack from Pyongyang would trigger an "overwhelming response."

South Korean servicemen onboard military vehicles during a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of its armed forces
The heavy weapons on display included battle tanks and other armoured vehicles as well as artilleryImage: Kim Soo-hyeon/REUTERS

The largest military parade in South Korea's history took place on Tuesday as the country commemorated the 75th anniversary of its armed forces and the 70th anniversary of the security alliance with the United States.  

At a time of deepening tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the event was also a very clear warning to nuclear-armed North Korea.  

Both Armed Forces Day and the anniversary of the US mutual defense pact fall on Saturday but the parade — the first significant display of South Korea's military capabilities for a decade — was brought forward to avoid clashing with the Chuseok holiday, during which people traditionally reunite with their families. 

More than 170 tanks, self-propelled howitzers, armored cars, helicopters and fighter aircraft took part in the parade, along with a range of guided missiles, including long-range surface-to-air weapons, the Joint Direct Atack Munition (JDAM) and US-made Patriot PAC-3 guided missiles.  

Some 4,000 South Korean soldiers participated in the event, along with 300 of the 28,500 US troops stationed in the Asian country. 

Yoon says military would 'immediately retaliate' against provocation 

President Yoon Suk Yeol addressed a commemorative ceremony at Seoul Air Base, just south of the capital, issuing a clear warning to Pyongyang that it is treading a dangerous path by continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

Members of the military take part in a parade in Seoul, South Korea to mark the 75th anniversary of its armed forces
Around 4,000 soldiers took part in the army display demonstrating its strength amid growing tensions with North KoreaImage: Kim Soo-hyeon/REUTERS

"The North Korean regime must clearly realize that nuclear weapons will never be able to guarantee its security," Yoon said.  

Enhancing the capabilities of its nuclear weapons and missile systems — in spite of international condemnation — and threatening to use them against its rivals "constitutes an existential threat to our people and a grave threat to world peace," said Yoon.  

"Based on battle-ready combat capabilities and a solid readiness posture, our military will immediately retaliate against any North Korean provocation," Yoon added. "If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, its regime will be brought to an end by an overwhelming response from the South Korea-US alliance." 

Pyongyang's response to the warning was equally robust, with the North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations telling the General Assembly in New York that his country has no choice but to "urgently" increase its defensive capabilities and that there is an "immediate danger of nuclear war breakout" on the peninsula. 

Ambassador Kim Song blamed the "current dangerous situation" on the "reckless military moves and provocations of the hostile forces" of South Korea and the US. 

Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, said the scale of the military parade underlines the worsening relationship between the North and the South and is in sharp contrast to the policies of previous, more left-leaning administrations in Seoul.

Political rivals' hopes for North Korea engagement 

"Over the past 25 years, the people of South Korea, no matter if they are politically left or right, have all hoped that engagement with the North would bring about positive results in the areas of human rights, arms control and less repression," Pinkston told DW.

Tokyo, Seoul ties thaw amid North Korea worries

There have been talks designed to lower the temperature in the arms race, on weapons of mass destruction and economic exchanges, but no agreements have passed the test of time, Pinkston pointed out.  

"And both sides blame each other for those failures; the right says left-leaning governments were too soft and allowed the North to get away with improving its weapons capabilities, then the left will claim that right-wing administrations were too harsh, refused to negotiate and forced the North to develop more weapons." 

President Yoon is a former prosecutor who had virtually no foreign policy or international security background before he took office in May 2022, but he has since been influenced by a number of hawkish advisers.  

"For Yoon, this is not just a parade," Pinkston said. "This continues a pattern... of a resumption of joint exercises with the US, summit meetings with security on the top of the agenda and more declarations of his commitment to protecting the South."

"The message that is being signaled that any North Korean aggression will be met with forceful retaliation," he said.

Park Jung-won, a professor of international Law at Dankook University, said the parade was something of a throwback to his youth and the regular demonstrations of military might under a series of dictatorships in the 1980s and '90s.  

"Parades at that time were used to consolidate the government's anti-communist message, but later 'progressive' governments shied away from those sorts of military displays because they perceived them as being a negative reminder of the dictatorships," he said.  

That has changed again under Yoon, who sees a show of force "as necessary once again."  

"The North shows off its weapons regularly, in parades and demonstrations, and Yoon clearly thought it was necessary for the South to show off its own advanced missile capabilities," Park said.  

Edited by: Keith Walker

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