For the first time in a decade, the streets of downtown Seoul will host a procession of tanks, fighter jets, and other advanced military assets, the South Korean Ministry of Defence announced on Wednesday.
The last time the country staged a military parade was in 2013. Its next will take place on Sept. 26 to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country’s armed forces. But it’s more than just a commemoration. The display of might coincides with escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea regularly holds military parades. Its most recent, and third of the year so far, was held last week and was attended by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un as well as delegations from Russia and China. As Pyongyang seeks to bolster its partnerships with Moscow and Beijing, it has also ramped up its aggressive rhetoric and weapons testing. Earlier this week, while Kim met with Putin in Russia over a suspected arms deal, North Korea launched its 20th missile test of the year.
South Korea used to hold a military parade every five years for Armed Forces Day, but in 2018, amid efforts to de-escalate tensions with its northern neighbor, former President Moon Jae-in swapped the usual march of tanks and munitions with a more celebratory ceremony headlined by popstar Psy.
But Moon’s successor Yoon Suk-yeol, elected in 2022, has brought back a hardline approach. The theme of this year’s parade, according to the official announcement, is “strong military, strong security, and peace through strength.”
While plenty of Korean weaponry will be on display, Gordon Kang, a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, tells TIME that a more notable feature this year will be the increased optics around South Korea’s alliance with the U.S., which has recently been strengthened. For the first time, hundreds of American troops and several American aircraft are set to take part in the event, including through parachute drops “to demonstrate combined operational capabilities,” state-funded Yonhap News Agency reported.
The revival of military showmanship is not an unexpected move, Uk Yang, a research fellow at the Asan Policy Institute in Seoul, tells TIME, for a conservative like Yoon. The parade will be as much a message to the domestic population as it will be to international observers. “He puts a lot of trust in the military,” Yang says of Yoon, and “wants to show the Korean people that tax monies were sent to the military.”
For Yoon's government, the parade offers a welcome distraction for South Koreans facing a worsening economic outlook and recently preoccupied by Chinese-inflated concerns over the safety of seafood, a staple of Korean cuisine. Yoon’s public approval rating has also dipped lately, with survey respondents identifying defense and diplomacy as the factors most affecting their assessment of the leader.
“The government wants to underscore its commitment to, essentially, safeguarding South Korea’s sovereignty,” says Kang. “It wants to signal its willingness and capability to deter in the face of evolving security challenges, North Korea or otherwise.”
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