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On the eve of a South Korea-US summit in Washington on Tuesday, and in the run-up to the first-ever North Korea-US summit on 12 June, US President Donald Trump has at last nominated an ambassador to Seoul, filling a post that has been vacant since January 2017.
The nominee, Admiral Harry Harris, currently leads the US Pacific Command, or PACOM, a position which has required him to demonstrate not only strategic leadership but also accumulate expertise in East Asia’s interfacing complexities.
With ex-CIA chief Mike Pompeo having replaced former businessman Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and the uber-hawkish John Bolton appointed as National Security Advisor, and a very senior admiral now taking up the ambassador’s post in Seoul, the Trump administration’s spotlight on Korea as a focus of not just foreign policy but also geopolitical strategy is clearer than ever.
Asian-American US admiral
Harris, who is of Japanese ancestry and reportedly the first Asian-American to become a US admiral, faces a stern task.
He will be in Seoul during and after the critical summit that Trump plans to hold with Kim Jong-un in Singapore next month. In the aftermath, he will also have to balance the Trump administration’s “bad cop” demand for immediate denuclearization with the Moon Jae-in administration’s “good cop” preference for engagement and cross-border relations.
He will also oversee the unprecedented shift of South Korean troops away from wartime operational control of the United States, and face the issue of local protests against a US missile-defense unit.
“I think [Harris’ nomination] is insurance – a guarantee that the Trump administration has all bases covered with respect to North Korea and the risks associated with making a deal with Pyongyang where things have not gone as planned before,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul. “Now, the president has someone who can work with US Forces Korea and US Pacific Command to ensure deterrent checks are in place, and brings a military side to dealing with the North Korean issue.”
Harris was nominated by Trump last Friday and will assume the position following Senate confirmation. However, his role had been signaled in April, when he was withdrawn as the ambassador nominated to Australia, a move that some in Canberra described as “disappointing.”
A thinking man’s seaman
Harris, an Annapolis graduate, served as a naval aviator, reportedly logging some 400 hours in combat in the Middle East. He climbed the career ladder to command units including the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the US Pacific Fleet. He has commanded US Pacific Command since 2005. With so many US military assets in East Asia – notably carrier battlegroups, and the US Marine force on Okinawa – being seaborne, Harris has been at the tip of the US spear in the region.
But he is a thinking seaman, having studied at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford, and professional experience has required him to become an expert on both the Asia-Pacific region and force projection. This should stand him in good stead in Seoul, given the strategic, political, historical and territorial complexities surrounding the Korean peninsula and radiating out to China, Japan and the Russian Far East.
He will be taking up his position at a time when both Japan and South Korea are ramping up their air and naval capabilities. Both navies have invested in multi-role ships that can carry combat aircraft, and are upgrading their missile defenses.
Harris will also be overseeing the redeployment of US troops in Korea to their new base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, and the highly complex task of removing Korean troops from US wartime operational control – “OPCON Transfer.”
A critical US priority in the region is keeping Seoul and Tokyo on the same strategic page, vis-a-vis North Korea and China. It is a dicey task.
Seoul harbors massive anti-Japanese animosity and constantly renews memories of Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula. This – together with a territorial dispute over an island in the sea that separates the two countries – means that Seoul, despite its democratic government, is often more aligned with Beijing than with Tokyo. Complicating matters further, Beijing is Seoul’s number-one trade and investment partner, while Washington is its strategic ally, meaning South Korea is deeply conflicted.
In March, speaking before a Senate Committee, Harris defined North Korea as “most urgent security threat in the region,” and said that Kim Jong-un would “would do a victory dance” if the US withdrew its 28,500 troops from South Korea. He has also been outspoken about the need to counter Beijing’s moves in the South and East China Seas, calling their artificial islands a “Great Wall of Sand.”
Most critical ambassadorial ability
While the Moon administration may not have sought a military man as their first choice for ambassador, there is doubtless a sigh of relief that the post has, after 16 months, finally been filled.
Moreover, Harris likely offers the most critical ability a host country seeks for a US ambassador: Direct communication links to the secretary of state and the president.
“We know President Trump has the highest respect for officers in uniform; his first two major appointments were both military and his chief of staff also has a military background,” said Kim. “They have earned his respect and influence the president’s thinking on a lot of issues. I think Admiral Harris will have no problem getting access to the president.”
Academic Victor Cha had been seen as the most likely US ambassador to Seoul, but was dropped in January – reportedly due to his refusal to countenance a US military strike on North Korea which, according to Cha, could have led to massive casualties if North Korea retaliated.
Harris will be the second consecutive US ambassador to Seoul with naval experience.
Former ambassador Mark Lippert – a Barack Obama appointee – had a background in naval intelligence, but did not reach Harris’ exalted rank. Lippert won immense kudos in South Korea for the way he brushed off a knife attack by an anti-American radical, and was popular for his down-to-earth personality and public diplomacy, which ranged from walking his beagle through downtown Seoul to sneaking out of his residence for off-the-record drinks with journalists.
Some pundits believe that Lippert’s core mission in Seoul was in fact, to have South Korea install THAAD missile defense batteries. THAAD was indeed installed, but has been controversial: A furious Beijing sanctioned Korean firms, on the grounds that the batteries’ powerful radar could snoop on Chinese systems.
Harris will have to contend with South Korean protesters who seek to hamper operation of the US THAAD units.
One issue that may arise when it comes to the US balancing act between Korean and Japanese interests is Harris’ heritage: He is Japanese-American. South Koreans have a strong anti-Japanese bias, and some have a neo-Confucian tendency to refer to ancestry. However, Asan’s Kim does not expect this to be problematic.
“I think Admiral Harris understands these racial and historic issues…I think he is going to be sympathetic,” said Kim of Asan. “If [Koreans] play it up and make it a political issue, it could be a problem. But I have not seen anything so far in the Korean media that suggests that this would be a problem.”
Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, however, has critiqued Harris on ancestral grounds, saying, “…it is simply impossible to ignore Admiral Harris’ blood.”