South Korea pushed Monday for "swift" action to activate the U.S. Army's THAAD anti-missile system against the North Korean threat a day after a White House official said it could take months.
At a news conference in Seoul with Vice President Mike Pence, acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn said, "We have agreed to further strengthen the readiness posture of the ROK [Republic of Korea]-U.S. alliance that matches the threats posed by North Korea through a swift deployment of THAAD."
Earlier, a White House foreign policy official traveling with Pence said that efforts to make the hit-to-kill Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system operational were moving ahead, but "there are still some things to work out."
The official, speaking on background, said it might be best to wait for the May 9 election of a new South Korean president to make the final decision on THAAD activation.
"It should be a decision for the next president," the official said Sunday, shortly after North Korea's failed test launch of what was believed to be a medium-range missile. He said a decision "may slip a couple of weeks or months."
The discussions on THAAD took place as the U.S and South Korea ignored warnings from the North against joint military exercises and began the "Max Thunder" training exercise involving 1,000 U.S. airmen and a range of fighter jets out of Kunsan Air Base, U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement.
South Korean aircraft included F-15, F-16, F-5E and F-4E fighters, PaCom said.
"This exercise will rigorously test our aerial combat capability and highlights the ironclad commitment between the U.S. and South Korea, and the multifaceted capabilities we possess in this theater," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Korea.
The decision to activate THAAD could depend on the outcome of the presidential election.
Moon Jae-in, the current front-runner to replace impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye, is believed to favor a softer line on North Korea and has said that as president he would review the decision to deploy THAAD.
Components of the system began arriving at Osan Air Base in early March for deployment on what had been a golf course owned by the Lotte retail conglomerate south of Seoul. South Korean military officials said at the time that THAAD could be operational in April.
China renewed its opposition to the THAAD placement in a phone call Sunday between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. China has complained that the powerful radars of the THAAD system could spy on Chinese military activities.
To deter South Korea on THAAD, China has put in place a number of punitive measures. South Korean missionaries have been ordered to leave China, and South Korean "K-pop" stars, wildly popular in China, have been denied entry.
State-run Chinese media outlets have also called for boycotts of goods sold by the Lotte conglomerate. Most of Lotte's nearly 100 retail outlets in China have been closed, ostensibly for violation of fire codes.
At the news conference in Seoul, Pence that the deployment of THAAD is more evidence of the "iron-clad alliance" between the U.S. and South Korea in the face of provocations from North Korea.
At a massive military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put on display what were purported to be intercontinental ballistic missiles.
North Korea followed that up with the failed missile launch from the area around its Sinpo submarine base on the northeast coast and has threatened to carry out another underground nuclear test, which would be the sixth in recent years.
Pence warned Kim against testing the resolve of President Donald Trump. He pointed to the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield in response to an alleged chemical attack, and the dropping of the 21-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in Afghanistan against an ISIS offshoot.
"Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," Pence said. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."
In Washington, Trump told CNN at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll that North Korea has "gotta behave" to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. However, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump would not be "drawing red lines in the sand" with North Korea.
"He holds his cards close to the vest, and I think you're not going to see him telegraphing how he's going to respond to any military or other situation going forward," Spicer said. "I think that the action that he took in Syria shows that, when appropriate, this president will take decisive action."
At the State Department, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said the U.S. would seek further isolation of North Korea economically and diplomatically until Kim shows a willingness to negotiate and stop missile and nuclear tests, The Washington Post reported.
"We're looking for some kind of signal that they realize the current status quo is unsustainable," Thornton said. "They have to make a final decision about getting rid of illegal programs in order to turn the page and have a more normal relationship with the international community. We have not seen that signal."
Senior North Korean officials responded that the peninsula is "nearing the brink of war" because of U.S. actions, including sending the aircraft Carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group to waters off Korea.
Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, citing Japanese government sources, said that Chinese and Russian ships are tracking the progress of the Vinson.
North Korea's deputy representative to the United Nations, Kim In-ryong, also accused Washington of creating "a situation where nuclear war could break out an any time" and repeated Pyongyang's determination to carry out more nuclear tests.
In a visit to the 180-mile long Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, Pence, accompanied by Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, repeated White House statements that the U.S. has scrapped the policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea.
The policy referred to the statement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. would exercise "strategic patience" in hopes that economic pressure and eventual six-party talks involving the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea would lead the North to drop its nuclear programs.
Pence, who was on a 10-day trip to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia, told CNN, "We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience, but we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably."
The visit to the DMZ is routine for traveling U.S. officials, whose every move is tracked and photographed by North Korean soldiers. Last month, Tillerson was at the DMZ, and Obama administration officials, including Clinton, also routinely made the stop. The DMZ is also a tourist mecca for South Koreans.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.