President Donald Trump has backed off on having South Korea pay $1 billion for the THAAD anti-missile defense system, but not on his overall demand that allies spend more for defense, according to Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House National Security Adviser.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," McMaster said "The last thing I would ever do is contradict the president of the United States," while adding that the U.S. was sticking to the original deal on THAAD.
Under that arrangement, which has been negotiated for more than a year, Seoul signed off on providing the land and infrastructure, and the U.S. agreed to install and operate the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system against the North Korean missile threat.
"What I told our South Korean counterpart is, until any re-negotiation, that the deal's in place, we'll adhere to our word," McMaster said. "But what the president's asked us to do is to look across all of our alliances and to have appropriate burden-sharing, responsibility-sharing."
"The question of what is the relationship on THAAD, on our defense relationship going forward, will be re-negotiated as it's going to be with all of our allies, because what the president has said is he will prioritize American citizens' security and interests," McMaster said.
"But to do that, we need strong alliances," McMaster said, and to have strong alliances "we need everybody to pay their fair share."
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Monday expressed relief at McMaster's remarks on sticking to the original deal. Yun told reporters that McMaster stressed "keeping (the terms of) the deal reached between the two countries."
Yun added that South Korea has "explained how and in what process the THAAD issue has been discussed and agreed upon, and made clear our stance on the matter."
Trump, who has also pressed NATO allies to pay more for mutual defense, rattled South Korea's caretaker government ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May 9 with his remarks about South Korea paying $1 billion.
In a Reuters interview last week, Trump said of THAAD that "It's a billion dollar system. It's phenomenal. It's the most incredible equipment you've ever seen -- shoots missiles right out of the sky."
"And it protects them (the South Koreans) and I want to protect them," Trump said. "We're going to protect them. But they should pay for that, and they understand that."
Immediately after Trump made the remarks, South Korea's Defense Ministry said in a statement that "The official position remains unchanged that our government provides the land and other infrastructure while the U.S. covers the burden of cost of deploying and maintaining the THAAD system according to the regulations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)."
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PaCom), said last week that the hit-to-kill THAAD system and its powerful X-band radars to defend against short and medium-range missiles could be activated soon on a former golf course about 130 miles south of Seoul.
Harris said the U.S. was acting despite local protests against the THAAD placement, the uncertain outcome of South Korea's presidential election, and renewed warnings from China.
Harris told the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday that THAAD would be "operational in the coming days to be able to better defend South Korea against the growing North Korea threat."
North Korea attempted to test launch what was believed to be a medium-range missile last Friday but PaCom said the missile appeared to break up in flight.
On April 15, the 105th anniversary of the birthday of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, North Korea attempted another test launch, but the missile appeared to explode on the launching pad, according to PaCom.
The test last Friday came as the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group arrived in waters near the Korean peninsula to begin exercises with the South Korean navy.
Also last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang renewed Beijing's "grave concerns" that THAAD could upset the balance of power in the region.
THAAD "will break the strategic balance in the region and further escalate the tensions on the Korean peninsula," Geng said. "It does no good to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula and regional peace and stability, and runs counter to the efforts of various parties to resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation," Geng said.
In an interview on his 100 days in office that aired Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation" program, Trump was cautious on what the U.S. response would be to another North Korean nuclear weapons test and surprisingly called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a "really smart cookie."
In the interview, which was taped before McMaster spoke on THAAD, Trump said "If he (Kim) does a nuclear test, I will not be happy. And I can tell you also, I don't believe that the president of China (Xi Jinping), who is a very respected man, will be happy either."
When asked if the U.S. would have a military response to a North Korean nuclear test, Trump said "I don't know. I mean, we'll see."
Trump declined to be drawn into a discussion of Kim's sanity, but said "I can tell you this -- and a lot of people don't like when I say it, but he was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father (Kim Jong-il) died. He's dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others."
"And, at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle (the uncle reportedly was executed) or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So, obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie," Trump said.
In defiance of the U.S., China and the international community, North Korea said again Monday that what would be North Korea's sixth nuclear test could come at any time.
North Korea's "measures for bolstering the nuclear force to the maximum will be taken in a consecutive and successive way at any moment and any place decided by its supreme leadership," said a spokesman for North Korea's foreign ministry in a statement carried by its official KCNA news agency.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com