The developments linked to the dispute between Seoul and Washington about sharing defense costs became an indirect reason for the hype surrounding the US Ambassador to South Korea, Harry B. Harris. Some far left politicians even demanded that he be deemed persona non grata.
Harry B. Harris was born in Japan. He became the first Asian American to head the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) and also the highest-ranking member of the American military of Japanese descent. Hence, his appointment immediately caused an uproar among Korean nationalists. After all, not only did the Japanese oppress them but now they were going to be the ones conveying orders from Washington to Seoul.
In reality, the appointment of a hardliner with a military background should be linked with the fact that Harry B. Harris replaced Mark Lippert in his post. The latter’s diplomatic efforts included traveling around South Korea, giving children Korean names and exuding friendliness. However, in the end, there was an incident on 5 March 2015, when yet another “professional” Korean patriot (the head of a non-governmental organization affiliated with one of the ministries) tried to cut Mark Lippert’s face with a knife in protest of US policies. The former Ambassador to the ROK had cuts on his face and arms, and needed more than 80 stitches.
Harry B. Harris’s habitual manner of getting straight to the point without any preamble and of talking about issues that South Koreans are not accustomed to has shocked many people. The current US Ambassador to South Korea literally became a “magnet” for hate directed at him by those individuals in the ROK President’s circles whose political views are inextricably linked to anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiments. According to South Korea’s most pro-government newspaper The Hankyoreh, Harry B. Harris’s behavior was “dripping with arrogance, rudeness, prejudice, and ignorance”. Other journalists have criticized him for “expressing his thoughts unfiltered and saying really unpleasant things, saying things that had me thinking ‘this guy seems to hate Koreans’, and acting like the [colonial Japanese] Governor-General”.
On 23 September, during a meeting with a group of Korean lawmakers from conservative circles, Harry B. Harris supposedly “inquired about reports that Moon was surrounded by people with ‘leftist inclinations’ who tended to side with North Korea”. Despite the confidential nature of the discussion, his remarks leaked to the media. Afterwards, the US. Envoy was admonished for having “some intentional misperceptions” about President Moon Jae-in, which could “add to US distrust of the South Korean leadership and government”.
On 7 November, Harry B. Harris was invited to the residence of Lee Hye-hoon, the chair of National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee. But instead of having a routine conversation about nothing as is typical of any first meeting, he immediately began a discussion about sharing the costs of stationing the US troops in the ROK and pointed out the South Korean side needed to pay US$ 5 billion. Lee Hye-hoon tried to change the topic on several occasions but each time, the US Ambassador returned to the issues of US$ 5 billion. Afterwards, the lawmaker supposedly said that over several decades of working in government, she had met a number of ambassadors of various nations but had never had a similar discussion to that with Harry B. Harris. According to Lee Hye-hoon, the US Envoy had mentioned the infamous US$ 5 billion at least 20 times, and every time she attempted to change the topic, he returned to the issue of money again and again.
Ruling Democratic Party of Korea spokesperson Lee Jae-jung also said that Harry B. Harris was one of the least polite ambassadors, and stated that she would not visit the US embassy while he remained the Envoy even to attend formal events.
On 19 November 2019, in an interview with the Yonhap News Agency, Harry B. Harris said that Seoul had “elevated its long-simmering historical conflict with Tokyo” from the sphere of trade “into the security realm”. He was referring to South Korea’s intention not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in his criticism. He essentially laid the responsibility for the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea at Seoul’s and not Tokyo’s doorstep.
In retaliation for such statements, as early as October of this year, “seventeen members of a progressive college student group used ladders to climb over the wall of” the ambassador’s residence and put up banners reading “Harris leave this land” there. At the time, “Harry B. Harris and his wife were away for a Cheong Wa Dae reception hosted by President Moon Jae-in. The students later released a video showing their feat as a number of them scaled the wall while others kept the police away. All of the participants of the protest were detained, and now that the initial investigation had been completed, “prosecutors formally requested the court to permit the arrests of seven of them”. It turned out that the members of this group had staged demonstrations near the US embassy, the ambassador’s residence and US military bases before, but we are particularly interested in the manner in which the most circulated Anglophone newspaper, The Korea Times, chose to report this piece of news. Here is a quote from their article:
“We have mixed feelings about this incident. Of course, their act was illegal and shameful. The break-in should be punished in accordance with the law, and appropriate measures should be taken immediately to prevent such an incident from happening again. What is equally important is to carry out a thorough investigation into how the protesters were able to enter the ambassador’s residence so easily. … But it is a clear fact that the US demands for South Korea to pay more for the United States Forces Korea have raised questions here about the meaning of the alliance.”
The same newspaper has also expressed its concern about whether the US Ambassador “is giving Seoul the level of respect it deserves as one of Washington’s indispensable Asian allies that shares the common objectives of maintaining peace and stability in the region”.
In such a context, on 27 November 2019, “Rep. Kim Jong-hoon of the minor Minjung Party called for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to designate” Harry B. Harris as “persona non grata”, because of the Ambassador’s incessant meddling in “South Korea’s policies regarding unification and national security”.
It would be interesting to know what will happen next at this stage. Undoubtedly, the US Envoy will continue to be subjected to criticism, and ROK law enforcement agencies will invariably still turn a blind eye to any insults that South Korea’s patriotic youth will choose to display on the walls of his residence. Harry B. Harris will continue to be demonized with words such as: a proper ambassador would instead work on strengthening friendships among countries and would not simply act as a conduit for the government’s views. But no serious measures will be taken against him. Venting its frustration with such statements, the South Korean leadership is not necessarily comprised of left-wing supporters (as it portrays itself) but instead of populists who simply tuck their tail between their legs in critical situations whenever they are threatened. Political and economic ties between the ROK and the United States are too strong for President Moon Jae-in to attempt to break them. After all, he clearly understands that any retaliation from Washington could be very painful, much more painful that the unofficial sanctions imposed by China against Seoul for allowing the USA to have US missile defense systems in South Korea.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.