US commander: Anti-missile system in South Korea operational in ‘coming days’

Anti-THAAD protesters clash with police as the US and South Korea move parts of the anti-missile defense system to its planned deployment location in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea.

SEOUL, South Korea — The US anti-missile system designed to mitigate the threat of North Korea’s missiles will soon be operational, the top US commander in the Pacific said Wednesday.

US Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system would be “operational in the coming days to be able to better defend South Korea against the growing North Korea threat.”

The South Korean Defense Ministry said Wednesday that parts of the system had been moved to the planned deployment site.

The THAAD system has been moved to South Korea in response to North Korea’s increased missile and nuclear tests, but it has drawn sharp opposition from China and Russia, who see it as also equalizing their nuclear deterrents.

The goal was to have the complete system fully operational by the end of this year but the US and South Korea have publicly stressed the need to speed up the deployment of the technology as tensions have mounted with Pyongyang.

Harris said it was “preposterous” that China would take economic steps to try to stop South Korea from receiving a defensive system, which the US insists does not pose a threat to Beijing.

Anti-THAAD protesters clash with police as the US and South Korea move parts of the anti-missile defense system to its planned deployment location in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea.

He added that China appears to be working to deter North Korea, as President Donald Trump has pushed his Chinese counterpart to do.

“I’m reasonably optimistic now that China is having an influence, and they are working in the right direction with regards to North Korea thanks to the efforts of our president and theirs,” Harris said.

The Pacific commander said that he was taking Kim Jong Un at his word that the North Korean leader is determined to develop a long-range nuclear missile that could strike the US and that should “provide us all a sense of urgency” to ensure US forces in the Pacific are prepared.

He said providing “credible combat power” was the best way to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” Harris said.

The Pacific commander cited the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group deployment to northeast Asia as such a deterrent against North Korea’s rising threats, saying it was now in the Philippine Sea and “in strike range and power projection range of North Korea if called upon to do that.”

The Vinson is headed north after initial confusion earlier this month about the location of the carrier, a miscommunication Harris accepted responsibility for.

“That’s my fault on the confusion, and I’ll take the hit for it,” Harris told the panel.

He said it was his decision “to pull the Carl Vinson out of Singapore, truncate the exercise it was going to do south of Singapore, cancel its port visit to Australia and then proceed north.”

He added, “Where I failed was to communicate that adequately to the press and the media. So that is all on me.” Harris did not address what, if any, communications took place with the White House.

As another deterrent, Harris pointed to the USS Michigan — a guided-missile submarine — that arrived in South Korea Tuesday, saying it was an important show of force.

“We have a lot of preemptive options,” Harris said.

At the same time, Harris talked up his command’s unfulfilled needs. He said he only had 50% of the submarines he sought for the region — “We need more submarines,” he said bluntly — and that he saw a need for more interceptors deployed in California and Alaska to defend against potential North Korean missiles.

He also said he’d be interested in deploying missile-defense radars to Hawaii — and possibly missile interceptors — to help better defend the islands from North Korea’s missiles.

Harris’ testimony comes ahead of two congressional briefings on North Korea Wednesday afternoon, where Defense Secretary James Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will brief the full House and Senate.

Senators are headed to the White House for the briefing, where President Donald Trump may drop in.

While the briefings are being held in a classified setting, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas said Harris’ testimony was important for reassuring the public.

“I think the public is nervous, and they need to know that we have the military capability to prevail should a conflict come,” Thornberry said ahead of the hearing.

Harris is testifying in three congressional hearings this week, but he’s doing so without Gen. Vincent Brooks, the head of US Forces Korea, who was supposed to testify but remained in the Pacific due to the increased tensions.