SEONGNAM, South Korea, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- Airshows, photo ops and the latest military hardware were on display as the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX) 2019, the largest defense show in Northeast Asia, concluded Sunday in Seongnam.
The biennial event, which opened Tuesday, brought together 430 defense and aerospace firms from across 34 countries to show off their latest weapons and technology, as well as senior defense officials and military brass from 98 countries.
Highlights of ADEX included a display of the F-35A, the advanced stealth fighter from American manufacturer Lockheed Martin, which is the newest addition to the South Korean Air Force.
Seoul initially agreed to buy 40 of the fighter jets by 2021 in a deal valued at about $6.4 billion. South Korea's arms procurement agency announced in an Oct. 7 report that it plans to purchase an additional 20 F-35s.
Eight have been delivered, with five more expected to arrive by the end of the year.
Interest was high at ADEX around the F-35A, said Greg Day, regional manager for business development in North Asia with Lockheed Martin.
"There appeared to me to be a strong appreciation for what the future brings with an airplane like that, [one] that's here to defend our freedoms and maintain peace," Day said. "To see the one out here on the ramp, the public can see it in its true reality. It's owned by their Air Force and it's beginning operations for them."
North Korea, however, has frequently slammed the purchase of the jets, claiming that the F-35A was being brought in to enable a surprise attack and warning that it would have no other choice but to develop special weapons to destroy it.
A commentary in the state-run Pyongyang Times on Sunday denounced joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea and once again claimed that Seoul has "shipped in sophisticated war equipment from abroad in large quantities in a bid to launch a pre-emptive attack on the North."
Also on display at ADEX was a full-size mock-up of the KF-X, South Korea's most advanced homegrown fighter jet.
The project, which was launched in 2015, is being developed in conjunction with Indonesia by Korea Aerospace Industries. Its first prototype will be ready for testing in 2021 with deliveries of aircraft scheduled to begin in 2026, a KAI representative confirmed.
The KF-X, which stands for "Korea Fighter Experimental," is being classified by KAI as a "generation 4.5" fighter, less expensive than the fifth-generation F-35A. It is meant to replace the Korean Air Force's aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s, as well as to be sold for export.
The $6.3 billion project has faced several hurdles since its inception, including the U.S. government blocking certain technology transfers from Lockheed Martin, forcing South Korea to develop them domestically. Indonesia has also been overdue in its contributions to fund the project and has sought to renegotiate its original deal to provide 20 percent of the cost.
The defense expo was held as a chill has descended on inter-Korean relations, with North Korea continuing to provoke with weapons tests, including a new ballistic missile launched from a submarine earlier this month.
A bizarre soccer game last week between North and South, held in Pyongyang in front of an empty stadium, was so physical that South Korean players said they felt lucky to escape unharmed.
Visitors to ADEX on Sunday included many families with small children, who lined up to clamber aboard the varieties of aircraft, helicopters and tanks on display and pose for photos. Mascots, such as a tiger dressed in South Korean military gear, and military bands entertained the crowd while jets piloted by South Korea's Black Eagles aerobatic team roared overhead.
Also on display was the latest in military hardware, with South Korean manufacturers such as Hanwha and Poongsan taking center stage. From drones to AI-powered surveillance systems to remote control weapons and unmanned vehicles, automation and cutting-edge technology were highlights of many displays.
For South Korea, technology is going to take an increasing role in military affairs as sheer manpower shrinks. The South Korean Army announced Oct. 11 that it plans to reduce the number of troops by around 100,00 over the next three years, from 464,000 to 365,000, due mainly to an impending population decline.