26.01.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korean Populists Bristle at US Envoy’s Moustache


A month ago, we published an article about Harry B. Harris, the US Ambassador to South Korea and a retired Navy Admiral, becoming the “the target of hatred” for pro-government and nationalist groups because of his unabashedly direct views.

First, let us remind you about the context. 4-star Admiral and former head of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) Harry B. Harris (of Japanese descent on the mother’s side) was appointed to be the U.S. envoy to the ROK on 28 June 2019.  From the very beginning, he became a source of irritation to progressives because of his Japanese roots and direct statements, many of which were made public despite being intended For Official Use Only (FOUO).

Since his job is to promote U.S. policies, Harry B. Harris is a tough supporter of increased funding for American troops stationed in South Korea, and of participation of the Republic of Korea Navy in joint military drills in the Middle East. He has criticized Seoul for its decision not to renew the GSOMIA (the General Security of Military Information Agreement), and thinks that Washington ought to at least be consulted on any “bold” initiatives aimed at improving relations between the two Koreas. Once, the Ambassador even posed the following question “Is it true that there are plenty of DPRK sympathizers around Moon Jae-in?”.

Recently, Harry B. Harris has yet again added fuel to the fire. At the end of December, he gave an in depth interview to the Korea Times, during which, in the author’s opinion, the Ambassador looked like a hard-line hawk.

  • Harry B. Harris made no mention of Pyongyang’s diabolical plans but proposed to “be ready for any eventuality” instead of trying “to read Kim Jong-un’s mind”.
  • The Ambassador stated that what he personally felt was not important implying that he was a mere government official doing the President’s bidding. In addition, Harry B. Harris said if President Donald Trump believed in something, that was “the position of the United States”. The diplomat also refused to divulge private conversations with the President or with the Secretary of Defense as if he were to make them public, he “wouldn’t be the Ambassador”.
  • The U.S. Envoy also declined “to comment on the President’s terminology” (for instance, Donald Trump referred to South Korea as “a ‘freeloader’ in terms of bilateral security”). Harry B. Harris said he viewed the ROK “as an ally and a friend with a shared interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula and defense of the Korean land itself”.
  • The Ambassador also noted that most of the objectionable statements (about, for instance, President Moon Jae-in’s circle), which he supposedly made, were part of private conversations. And those who chose to talk about them publicly were violating the trust he placed in them. The diplomat also added that he was not going to repay them in kind.
  • According to the U.S. Envoy, the decision to keep U.S. troops in the ROK was not an American decision or a Korean decision ― it was “an alliance decision like many of the decisions” taken in the past years and decades.
  • Harry B. Harris was not of the opinion that the United States favored Japan over ROK in a bilateral dispute between Japan and South Korea. “President Trump himself has said that when Japan and Korea get along, then all three nations prosper, but when they don’t, then that it takes a lot of our time and energy and it creates openings for China and North Korea,” added the Ambassador. When asked about the security agreement, the diplomat mentioned the USA was “very concerned that Korea would make permanent its threat to walk away from the GSOMIA” but now felt encouraged “that Korea made a decision not to do so”.

In an interview with broadcaster KBS, which aired at the beginning of 2020, Harry B. Harris said South Korea got large amounts of energy from the Middle East and, therefore, hoped that the ROK would send forces out there.

Even such remarks elicited the “how dare he”-response. And still, on 16 January 2020, Harry B. Harris went even further with his comments. In an interview with international media, the diplomat stated: “South Korea should consult with the U.S. about its plans to engage with North Korea to avoid any ”misunderstandings“ that may trigger sanctions. President Moon’s continued optimism is encouraging. But with regard to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the United States. In order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions, it’s better to run this through the Working Group,” which “was set up in 2018 to coordinate North Korea-related issues”.

The aforementioned statements were interpreted as thinly-veiled pressure on Seoul in case it chose to support one of Moon Jae-in’s ideas, such as the initiative to organize individual tours to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang.   Having noted that tourism was not banned under the sanctions, Harry B. Harris added that problems could “arise from such things as luggage items that visitors” brought with them, and what routes they took “to travel to and back from the North”.

And although within the same statement the Ambassador pointed out that the ROK was a sovereign nation and Washington was in no position to either approve or disapprove of any decisions made in Seoul, enthusiastic South Korean patriots chose to ignore these words and continued criticizing him for an unacceptable level of interference in the nation’s affairs. A Cheong Wa Dae official said it was “very inappropriate for an Ambassador to publicly comment on the President’s remarks”, and a civic group member staged “a one-person demonstration” with a placard saying “Harris Out!”.

In fact, there have been attempts to rein the Ambassador in via all available official and unofficial means. As far back as 29 August 2019, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a meeting with Harry B. Harris in order to urge the U.S. government to refrain from issuing public statements or expressing disapproval about Seoul’s decision on the GSOMIA.

In the middle of October 2019, 19 members of a South Korean progressive college student group broke into the Ambassador’s compound with signs urging Harry B. Harris to “leave this land”, and one student even shouting: “What the U.S. has done is kill, rape, poison our land and threaten our people’s lives!”. It was the second incident of this nature in 13 months.

Since 12 December 2019, numerous protests have been staged against the U.S. Envoy not far from the American Embassy in Seoul. For instance, on 19 December, a group of South Koreans planned to hold a contest to behead an effigy of Harry B. Harris, while another event involved kicking a football with his face printed all over it.

In addition, demonstrators vandalize portraits of the Ambassador (just as conservatives in South Korea destroy pictures of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un) by, for example, plucking the moustache hairs from posters of his face and piercing his mouth with nail clippers. They have also used signs saying: “Harris be damned, we’ll torture you with chopsticks!”.

The government chooses to overlook such spectacles organized by well-connected NGOs, perhaps because it would actually take part in the hate campaign if it were possible. In fact, a press secretary of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea even dared to say that he had never before encountered such an impertinent person (referring to Harry B. Harris). And President’s Special Advisor on Unification, Diplomacy and National Security Affairs, Moon Chung-in, thinks that staging demonstrations against Ambassador Harry B. Harris close to the U.S. Embassy is the most effective means of protesting.

Some leftists have even criticized the U.S. Envoy for having several pet cats in his home. After all, he should be aware of the fact that, traditionally, these animals are associated with evil spirits and death. The author of this article is particularly “amused” about the hullabaloo created by South Korean “patriots” about the Ambassador’s moustache. It turns out that his facial hair reminds locals of the days of Japanese colonial rule because during this period “all eight Japanese Governors-General” of Korea had sported moustaches.  Media outlets have reported that some South Koreans view Harry B. Harris’s moustache as an affront to them and suspect it is a calculated insult against the country where he works. And such a state of affairs to them is unacceptable.

With an increased focus on the U.S. Envoy’s Japanese heritage, people in power have stopped worrying about political correctness and have called Harry B. Harris a “Japanese American Ambassador” and “Governor-General”. And such language has been used not only by civic activists but also individuals close to the ROK President. They include Song Young-gil, the Chairman of the Special Committee on Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia, who, in response to Harris’s remarks, directly stated: “… if South Korea follows whatever a foreign ambassador says, he or she would be like a ‘Governor General’ of the Japanese colonial government of Korea”.

In their frenzied state, his accusers have seemingly forgotten about a number of photographs depicting similar moustaches (to that of the Ambassador) being sported by famous South Korean patriots and activists (including An Jung-geun who had been practically canonized). In fact, their moustaches were viewed as symbols of masculinity. Hence, these pseudo-patriots are seemingly desecrating their own history, a typical behavior exhibited by such groups and not only in the ROK.

From the author’s point of view, Harry B. Harris is not one of U.S. ambassadors who actually behave like bulls in a china shop and teach locals how to live their lives. Many American diplomats in European countries have been far more insolent that Harris. Hence, this article is not only about the straight-talking U.S. Envoy but also about the means made use of by Moon Jae-in’s democratic government, and about how comical South Koreans’ criticism, laced with nationalism, can be when individuals are told what and where they need to shave.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

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