South Korea’s military is keeping a close eye on North Korea’s reaction as it prepares to take delivery of the latest stealth fighter jets from the United States in the next few months.
The South’s Air Force announced Sunday that two F-35A jets are due to arrive in Korea this March, the first shipment of cutting-edge aircrafts bought by Seoul in a 7.4 trillion won ($6.6 billion) contract for 40 jets signed with Washington in 2014.
Produced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35A Lightening II jets are advanced multirole fighters designed to perform ground attack and air superiority missions.
The first of Seoul’s jets were released from Lockheed’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, last March and four more have been produced since.
Once the two jets arrive in Korea in March, the Air Force plans to test them in May and have them ready for deployment by the end of that month.
Ten additional jets are scheduled to be delivered to South Korea within the year as part of the military’s plans to have all 40 aircraft equipped for practical use by 2021.
“Our pilots are currently conducting flight training in the United States,” said a Defense Ministry source in Seoul. “The original plans to deploy the stealth jets are proceeding without a hitch.”
But a new concern is how these plans will go over with North Korea in a time of detente. The North is the de facto target of the South’s armaments and further deployment of advanced, foreign-made weapons may not sit well with it.
In recent months, Pyongyang’s state media has been vocal about how both sides must faithfully commit to agreements made during the three summits between their leaders over the past year.
In his New Year’s address, which was televised live in the South for the first time in history, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said, “The introduction of war equipment, including strategic assets from outside, should completely be suspended.”
Last year, North Korea called the South’s deployment of an A330 MRTT aerial refueling tanker from Airbus, decisions to procure Green Pine Block-C missile defense radars from Israel and a P-8 Poseidon military aircraft from Boeing “outright violations” of a military agreement signed between the two Koreas in September of the same year.
One high-ranking South Korean officer said the North also took issue with Seoul’s decision to increase its defense spending, arguing that it overstepped the boundaries laid out in Article One of the agreement, which stipulates that both sides would refer to a joint military commission to resolve cases of large-scale military training or augmentation of forces aimed at the other.
Defense analysts say Pyongyang is particularly threatened by the new stealth fighters since they can penetrate the North’s air defenses and eliminate key targets with ease. Last March, the North’s state media called the deployment of such jets akin to an “anti-nation crime.”
For this reason, the South’s military is considering at least toning down its deployment ceremony for the new jets and proceeding with its future armament acquisitions in a low-key way.
This, in turn, could invite criticism that the military is kowtowing to the North.