South Korea’s defence minister has stated that a key role for the country’s Lockheed Martin F-35As in a war against North Korea will be knocking out leadership targets.

In remarks to the Republic of Korea Air Force’s (ROKAF’s) 17th fighter wing, which operates F-35As, defence minister Shin Won-Sik stressed that should Pyongyang start a war against South Korea, then the F-35A will be tasked with quickly destroying North Korea’s communist regime.

Korean defence minister with ROKAF personnel

Source: South Korea Ministry of National Defense

South Korean defence minister Shin Won-Sik with personnel from the 17th fighter wing. In a war against North Korea, the F-35A would be tasked with striking North Korean leadership

“[The] F-35 [is] the vanguard that will eliminate the enemy leadership and herald the end of the regime in the shortest possible time if North Korea starts a war,” says Shin.

“If the Kim Jong-un regime makes the worst choice of starting a war, you must become the invisible force that protects the Republic of Korea.”

The ROKAF operates 39 F-35As, and in December 2023 South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said it will obtain more under the Next Fighter 2 requirement. While it did not give the number to be obtained, a September 2023 Foreign Military Sales case from the US government stated that Seoul was cleared to buy 25 additional F-35As. 

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has ratcheted up tensions recently, declaring Seoul an enemy and formally repudiating “peaceful unification” with South Korea.

Amid a dire economic outlook, including food shortages, North Korea has also continued to test ballistic and cruise missiles.

Though details about North Korea’s military are murky, its air force is no match for the ROKAF and the US Air Force, which has bases in South Korea. As a treaty ally of Seoul, US forces would all but certainly be embroiled should war break out on the Korean peninsula.

Apart from a small number of RAC MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-25s, the majority of Korean People’s Air Force assets are believed to be unserviceable. North Korea certainly possesses substantial air defences, but these would be subjected to intense attrition by allied air forces.

In recent months Pyongyang has also tried to burnish its aerospace credentials with the unveiling of large, unmanned air vehicles that resemble the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk: the turboprop-powered Saetbyol-9 and jet-powered Saetbyol-4.

While a brief video purporting to show both in flight emerged last year, the development status and capabilities of both is unclear, particularly given Pyongyang’s lack of a capable aerospace sector.

Kim Jong-Un

Source: Korean Central News Agency

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un with the Saetbyol-9. The capability of Pyongyang’s UAV creations is not clear

Separately, South Korea has started production of the Korean Air Medium-Altitude Unmanned Air Vehicle (MUAV), according to Seoul’s official Yonhap news agency, quoting the DAPA. 

Development of the MUAV – also designated KUS-FS – was completed in 2022. Last year the DAPA said production would begin in 2024.

The DAPA envisages the MUAV providing a continuous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability on targets deep within North Korea. Moreover, local production will support the country’s domestic aerospace sector.