The first phase of the United States' THAAD anti-missile defense system has been activated on a golf course in South Korea to guard against the North Korean threat, Western news agencies said Monday.
"It has reached initial intercept capability," a U.S. official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, told Agence France Presse of the hit-to-kill Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System.
The activation of the THAAD system, first reported by Reuters, was still in the initial phases and would not be fully operational with launchers ready to shoot down short and medium-range missiles for several months, a U.S. official said. South Korean officials said last week that they expected THAAD to be fully operational by the end of the year.
Although the Lockheed Martin-built THAAD system has achieved success in test firings, it has never been used in combat and its placement on a former golf course about 130 miles south of Seoul in Seongju province has sparked protests from local residents who fear they would be targets of a North Korean attack.
Recent statements from President Donald Trump in interviews on his first 100 days in office have also rattled the caretaker government in Seoul and raised questions about the U.S. commitment to regional defense.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Trump said he wanted South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD placement. On "Fox News Sunday," Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House National Security Adviser, said that Trump had backed off on having South Korea pay $1 billion for THAAD, but not on his overall demand that allies contribute more for mutual defense.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was also dialing back from Trump's comments to Bloomberg News that it would be an "honor" to meet Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.
"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely," Trump said, adding: "I would be honored to do it."
Spicer said "the president clearly understands the threat North Korea poses," but Kim "was still a head of state."
He said that Trump would be prepared to meet Kim "under the right circumstances" when North Korea reins in its nuclear programs but "those circumstances do not exist" currently.
Leading South Korean newspapers ripped Trump for seeking THAAD payment and for suggesting a meeting with Kim, who is suspected in South Korea of ordering the murders and executions of more than 100 close associates and relatives to retain power.
"Trump's Mouth Rattling Korea-US Alliance," said the front-page headline Monday in the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest circulation newspaper.
"There are issues that are far more important than just money," the newspaper said in an editorial. "If either country keeps reducing the alliance to the matter of money or the economy, it is bound to undermine basic trust."
Another major newspaper, Joongang Ilbo, said that Trump's "confusing and contradictory messages" were posing a threat to the long-standing U.S.-South Korea security relationship. "The US must be well aware of the pain and backlash Seoul has endured to push for the THAAD deployment," the newspaper said.
The anti-missile system has also become an issue in South Korea's presidential election being held on May 9.
Moon Jae-in of the Democratic party, the leading presidential candidate, has criticized the THAAD deployment and believes that it should be up to a new administration to decide whether the system should be deployed.