Shutters clicked and the crowd surged forward to get a better look at the Stealth F-117 fighter jet displayed in all its black, bat-winged glory on the runway of the U.S. Air Force base here.
"Wow," exclaimed a young South Korean airman as he caught his first glimpse of the famed fighter.
No doubt about it, the Stealth bomber, with angles as sharp as a Cubist painting, is designed to impress and, some might say, intimidate. But the intended audience was not the several hundred South Koreans who had come to the air base 40 miles south of Seoul for the display, but the regime on the other side of the demilitarized zone, in Pyongyang.
"This is a warning signal to North Korea and I certainly hope that Kim Jong Il will get the message," said Won Yoo Chul, an assemblyman from Pyongtaek, South Korea, near Osan Air Base, referring to the North Korean leader.
For the last two weeks, the United States has been conducting exercises here with the South Korean army that are a rehearsal of OPLAN 5027, the U.S. military blueprint for a response to a North Korean invasion.
There is a widespread fear here that the North Koreans will take advantage of the war in Iraq to launch a provocation of their own, reckoning that U.S. forces will be too entangled elsewhere to respond.
Although the war games are an annual event scheduled months in advance, there is no doubt that this year they are coming at a convenient time. The coincidence of a war game taking place right now means most of the 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are in their battle positions, standing ready, just in case.
Officially, there is no buildup of the U.S. military presence around the Koreas. But some 5,000 extra soldiers have come in the last two weeks to participate in the exercises in addition to another 5,300 aboard the Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier that arrived in Pusan last week to back Marines in a rehearsal of an amphibious landing on the South Korean coast. The Pentagon also recently deployed a dozen B-52 bombers and a dozen B-1 bombers to Guam to discourage bad behavior by the North Koreans.
South Korea has also tightened security at airports, military and diplomatic facilities in anticipation of war in Iraq.
"Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula because of the North Korean nuclear issue, and a war against Iraq could have the effect of escalating the tensions," South Korean Prime Minister Goh Kun said Tuesday.
The six Stealth fighters flew in last week from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for the war games, which are dubbed "Foal Eagle" and "Reception, Staging and Onward Integration" and run through April 2.
This is the first time that Stealth bombers have participated in the annual joint exercises since 1994, which happens to be the same year that the United States nearly went to war against North Korea in a similar showdown over nuclear weapons. It has also been noted that if the United States were to decide to launch a preemptive airstrike on North Korea's nuclear complex in Yongbyon, the Stealth, an acclaimed veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo campaign, would be a likely candidate for the job.
"The F-117 is designed to penetrate a heavily defended target," explained Scott Cain, a Stealth pilot who stood with his arms folded across his chest, his feet firmly planted in front of the plane, dissuading onlookers from getting too close. He hastened to add that he and the other pilots had come to Korea merely to train under different atmospheric conditions than they know in New Mexico.
"We are just here for this exercise and when it is over we are going home," Cain said.
The North Koreans have made patently clear their displeasure with the war games, issuing almost daily denunciations through their news service. On Wednesday, the North Korean army declined a request by the American-led U.N. mission in South Korea to meet at Panmunjom, in the DMZ, to hear an explanation of the war games.
Col. Martin Glasser, a U.S. official, said in a statement Wednesday that the meeting was intended to reassure the North Koreans that it "is not related to world events -- that the exercise is defensive in nature and is not an aggressive or threatening move against North Korea."
Another U.S. official, retired Lt. Col. Jude Shea, who runs the computer simulation aspect of the games out of the main army compound in Seoul, said that each year the U.S. and South Korea jointly rehearse a different scenario. He would not disclose this year's scenario, which is classified, but said it was picked nine months ago before the current crisis erupted over North Korea's nuclear program.
"The scenarios vary, but basically we are looking at how we would receive augmentation [of force] and fight a war on Korea and how we would sustain the fight," Shea said.
The war games come as South Koreans are expressing ambivalence about the U.S. presence. Although the anti-American demonstrations that followed November's acquittal of two GIs in a road accident have largely subsided, some South Koreans are unhappy that this year's exercises are getting extensive media coverage -- making it appear from some footage of the realistic simulations that there is already a war on the Korean peninsula.
Whether to impress South Koreans or to intimidate the North Korean leadership, which is said to watch CNN, the U.S. military has made a big effort to publicize the exercises this year.
"I have mixed feelings when I see the Stealth," said Min Sook Hee, 26, a civilian employee of the South Korean air force who attended a showing at the Osan Air Base this week of the Stealth and other bombers used in the exercises. "On the one hand, it is reassuring that we have such a state-of-the-art plane. It can protect us, but it can also do a lot of damage. I can hope that it isn't used here."
Chung Yong Jai, 23, a sergeant in the South Korean air force, said he was happy to have the Stealth in his country given the situation with North Korea.
"I've heard the Stealths are here only for the exercises," said Chung, who had been photographing some of his buddies with a disposable camera.
"But you know, you have nothing to lose by having them around."
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.