President Moon Jae-in made a surprise trip Friday to a military training camp near the inter-Korean border for lunch and a special meeting with new army conscripts.
"Thank you for welcoming me with applause when I should be the one to applaud you," the president said shortly before the start of lunch with some 200 new service members at the 5th Infantry Division based in Yeoncheon, located some 60 kilometers north of Seoul.
The president's first trip to an Army boot camp came as he sought to personally offer his gratitude to military service members, his office Cheong Wa Dae said.
"Military service, in a way, is a very precious duty when our young people have to devote the prime time of their youth for our national security, our people and the lives and safety of our families," Moon said in a separate meeting held shortly after the lunch.
"I hope you will take pride in doing so," he added, according to Cheong Wa Dae pool reports.
Moon's visit comes amid unprecedented rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea, which signed a non-aggression military pact following a historic summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April.
Moon and Kim held two additional meetings in May and September.
The president insisted that strong defense will further promote peace.
"Specially, the 5th Infantry Division is at the very forefront of our security. Such a status does not change because of changes in inter-Korean relations," he said.
"Inter-Korean relations can only develop further when you continue to stand and defend our security at the forefront. Without the support of strong defense capabilities, dialogue and peace may become weak," the president added.
The only difference the inter-Korean rapprochement may have brought to the armed forces, he said, may be that the military now must help to make peace instead of just defending it.
"If our role had been to protect the lives and safety of our people by preventing enemy invasions, our role is now to make peace by actively promoting reconciliation with North Korea and to make sure such peace will lead to the country's economic development," said the president.
"I hope you would take great pride in that the 5th Infantry Division is playing that iconic role."
The president will later return to Seoul and host a year-end dinner for his ministers and other ranking officials, including Fair Trade Commission Chairman Kim Sang-jo and Board of Audit and Inspection Chairman Choe Jae-hyeong.
The dinner will be held at Cheong Wa Dae, with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon also in attendance. (Yonhap)