Bringing the U.S.-North Korea tension to Fort Worth at least for a day, officials from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin on Wednesday delivered the first of 40 F-35 fighter jet to South Korea.
Dozens of dignitaries from the Far East attended the event at Lockheed Martin's massive Air Force Plant 4 in west Fort Worth. The ceremony was punctuated by Korean fan dancers and haunting jindo drums.
In all, South Korea has ordered 40 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters, which are expected to be delivered over the next three to four years. South Korea agreed to pay about $7 billion for the planes as part of the 2014 deal.
The delivery comes two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an unannounced trip to Beijing and reportedly told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he is interested in meeting with President Donald Trump and South Korean leaders to possibly denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Trump has also said he would be willing to meet with Jong Un, possibly in a matter of weeks.
The timing of Wednesday's dazzling display of military might — Lockheed Martin features the motto "Peace through Strength. Lots of Strength" on its factory walls — wasn't lost on the dignitaries attending it.
Asked about it, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, seemed to offer a hat tip to Trump.
"I think you know President Trump is doing things that surprise all of us, and in this instance it's a very positive development," Cornyn said after a photo session with the South Korean air force's new F-35A Lightning II as a backdrop. "The prospect of military conflict in the Korean Peninsula is too horrible to imagine, but it's something we would clearly win, but at the cost of a lot of blood and treasure, and we want to avoid that if possible."
"I think the fact that Kim Jong Un went to Beijing is a surprising but encouraging development, and I think the president saying he's going to meet with Kim Jong Un in the future makes me hopeful for peace and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. It sounds like it's not going to be long in coming."
The manufacture of the F-35 provides 11,000 to 12,000 jobs for Fort Worth, and depending on future orders could create as many as 18,000 jobs, Mayor Betsy Price said.
Marilyn Hewson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, stressed the importance of continuing to provide aircraft to South Korea. She repeated a phrase uttered by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who has described the relationship between the countries as an "ironclad alliance."
"Today, our ironclad alliance is needed more than ever," she said. "All around the world, we see new threats emerging. These threats touch every domain — land, air, sea, space and the cyber realm. The F-35 does more than transform the Republic of Korea air force. It transforms a nation's armed forces and it allows allies to maintain peace through strength and cooperation that spans the globe."
Lt. Gen. Lee Seong-Yong, vice chief of staff of the South Korean air force, said seeing the F-35 emblazoned with the South Korean flag made him feel "overwhelmed with immense pride."
"We still have many tasks ahead of us until the day our air force fields all of the aircraft," he told the crowd through an interpreter. "We need the aircraft to be manufactured on schedule and we need our pilots and maintenance support staff who will handle the aircraft to be trained on time, so we would like everyone to maintain their interest and commitment."
The first six F-35s will be delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where South Korean pilots and maintenance workers will be trained on them, said Doug Wilhelm, a Lockheed vice president for the F-35 program. The remaining planes will be delivered directly to South Korea beginning in 2019, he said.