The governments of the United States and South Korea have agreed to the early activation of a defense system designed to shoot down North Korean missiles, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.
The decision to activate the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system came during talks between the acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo Ahn and Mike Pence, as the U.S. Vice President warned North Korea that the “era of strategic patience is over.”
At a joint press conference with Pence today, Hwang said, “We have agreed to further strengthen the readiness posture of the ROK-US alliance that matched the threats posed by North Korea through swift deployment of THAAD.”
A failed North Korean missile test on Sunday, when an unidentified projectile exploded moments after being launched in an eastern port city, came in defiance of U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands for the country to wrap up its nuclear program.
Operations to install the THAAD began in early March, the day after the North launched four ballistic missiles, when the United States flew in the “first elements” of the system to a military base near the South Korean capital, Seoul.
It has a range of 200km, and is capable of destroying incoming warheads by intercepting them mid-flight. The system had previously been installed in Guam and Hawaii.
Speaking at the time, Chinese foreign spokesperson Geng Shuang said China was “firmly opposed” to the deployment, and would “resolutely take measures to defend our own security interests.”
Beijing believes THAAD is a threat to its claims in the South China Sea, which it views as is territorial possession. The rest of the world views the region as international waters.
As such, South Korea has been hit with a string of punitive measures. Korean missionaries have been kicked out of the country and K-pop stars have been denied entry, while Korean businesses have faced significant losses, protests and hacking attacks.
Earlier this month, China froze package tours from Beijing to Seoul.
The THAAD was already slated for completion within months, and recent sabre-rattling by all parties has given the construction new urgency.
Donald Trump’s national security advisor said the North Korean “problem” was “coming to a head” and said he believe there was “an international consensus now, including the Chinese leadership, that this is a situation that cannot continue.”
And speaking at the border of the heavily-mined demilitarized zone which bisects the peninsula, Mike Pence sounded a similar note.
Referring to an “iron-clad alliance” between the United States and South Korea, he said, “All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people in this country.”