Unlike his popular predecessor Mark Lippert, the current US ambassador to South Korea has been ruffling feathers, accused of speaking out of turn on inter-Korean relations – and criticized for sporting a mustache that some say is reminiscent of despised Japanese overseers during the colonial era.
Lippert, who served as ambassador from 2014 to January 2017, endeared himself to Koreans during his term. On his blog, he often showed his love for Korea, and often made social-media posts in Korean. As a big fan of the Doosan Bears, a professional baseball team, he often visited Jamsil Arena, the Bears’ home stadium in Seoul, enjoying the games along with Korean fans. But Harry Harris, appointed ambassador last year by US President Donald Trump, has been a disappointment to many Koreans, accused of rudeness, arrogance and making controversial remarks.
This month during his New Year’s speech, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government would continue to try to improve relations with North Korea. Moon wants to invite Kim Jong Un, his North Korean counterpart, to Seoul; his government will make efforts to operate the Kaesong industrial complex and encourage tourism to Mount Kumgang in the North. Amid the international sanctions against the hermit kingdom, Moon’s plans sound impossible. But he insisted that he valued inter-Korean relations.
But after the speech during a meeting with foreign journalists, Ambassador Harris said Seoul needed to consult with Washington before resuming South Koreans’ tours to Mount Kumgang. Although tourism to North Korea is not banned under international sanctions, Harris claimed that South Korea had to take counsel from the US to avoid misunderstandings that could result in violations of sanctions.
After news reports about the envoy’s remarks, lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party and the spokesman for the Ministry of Unification slammed Harris, saying Seoul’s plan to resume Mount Kumgang tours was South Korea’s affair. Harris’ remarks were seen as a blatant interference in national affairs: It’s Seoul, not Washington, that has the right to make decisions on cooperating with Pyongyang. The US ambassador’s remarks could be seen as a violation of sovereignty, his critics charged.
Harris was born in Japan in 1956 of a Japanese mother and American father. After taking up his post in the Seoul embassy, some Koreans mocked his mustache, which they said looked like the facial hair favored by colonial-era Japanese governors general. Some even compared Harris to those early-20th-century Japanese administrators when they accused him of violating South Korea’s sovereignty – criticism that sounded absurd to some Western observers.
For his part, in an interview with a Korean newspaper, Harris blamed his ethnic background as a Japanese-American for South Koreans’ negative view on him. But most Korean media argue that is is his offensive remarks, not his mustache or ethnic background, that have made him unpopular.
Last September, when Harris met with Korean lawmakers, he put his foot in his mouth by saying that Moon Jae-in was “surrounded by pro-North Korean leftists.” His remark embarrassed Korean politicians, while Korean media said his comment was rude, given that none of his predecessors in America’s Seoul embassy have ever directly mentioned the president’s political ideology.
Another controversy over Harris flared up when he invited Lee Hye-hoon, chairwoman of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, to his ambassadorial residence. Lee reported that during the meeting, Harris had continuously asserted that South Korea had to pay US$5 billion per year toward the US military presence in the country. For South Korea, which currently pays $900 million per year for the US troop presence, Harris’ demand was not acceptable.
Incensed by Harris’ demand, some people held rallies around the US Embassy, calling for Harris to leave South Korea. Protesters said they could not understand Harris’ demand for increasing the payment for US troops. Moreover, Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean propaganda website, also condemned Harris for looking down on South Korea, treating the country like a US colony. Uriminzokkiri said Harris was violating South Korea’s sovereignty with his comments.
As some media outlets have said, it’s wrong to demonize Harris simply because of his mustache and ethnic background, considering that such behavior can be seen as racism. But for many Koreans, it is the US ambassador’s rudeness and offensive remarks that have provoked hostility against him.
The US Department of State says it trusts Harris despite the controversy over his remarks. But for many Koreans, Harris’ recent comments are seen as a violation of their country’s sovereignty. A man in his position is obliged to work for a close relationship between his home country and the host country. But many Koreans think Harris is doing nothing to improve the relationship between Washington and Seoul.