[Reporter’s notebook] The US ambassador who sees only what he wants to see

Posted on : 2019-11-21 16:34 KST Modified on : 2019-11-23 21:53 KST
Harry Harris’ arrogance and rudeness is unprecedented among Washington’s ambassadors to Seoul
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris heads to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Oct. 29. (Hankyoreh archives)
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris heads to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Oct. 29. (Hankyoreh archives)

An ambassador is a diplomatic envoy sent to represent a state, a bridge that links two countries. An ambassador is the diplomat par excellence. Their occupational mantra is embracing similarities and respecting differences. Their responsibility is to provide their home government with the plain facts about public opinion and the political situation in their host country and to communicate any requests for their host country in language that is considerate and diplomatic. The ethos of the ambassador is to clothe their behavior, both words and actions, with balance, panache, thoughtfulness, and restraint. But even now, 17 months after being appointed US ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris apparently hasn’t learned what an ambassador is supposed to do. His behavior is dripping with arrogance, rudeness, prejudice, and ignorance.

During an interview with Yonhap News on Nov. 19, Harris said that Japan’s export controls on South Korea and its removal of South Korea from its white list of countries that enjoy streamlined export reviews are rooted in the two countries’ historical dispute, which has extended into the realm of the economy. Harris went on to criticize South Korea for extending that dispute further into the realm of security, a decision that he finds disappointing. Harris also expressed his strong desire for South Korea and Japan’s (General Security of Military Information Agreement) GSOMIA not to end at midnight on Nov. 22.

Since the US government officially supports GSOMIA, Harris has every right to be disappointed. But the reasoning for his disappointment is flawed. It was not the South Korean government but the Japanese government that extended the dispute into the realm of security. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself said that the export controls were intended to manage security-related trade during a press conference held shortly after the election for Japan’s House of Councillors on July 21. Abe was the first person to make security an issue.

There’s a long history here. Since returning to power in 2012, Abe has progressively removed positive language about South Korea from Japan’s national defense white paper: “sharing values” in 2015, “sharing interests” in 2018, and “future-oriented” in 2019. Japan has downgraded South Korea from a good friend to a business-like trading partner, and now to a stranger, with whom discussing the future is unthinkable. If Harris’s claims are not rooted in ignorance, they represent another form of prejudice, only seeing what one wants to see.

Only mentioned “5 billion” in meeting with Ntl. Assembly intelligence committee chair

On Nov. 7, Harris invited Lee Hye-hoon, chairperson of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, to his ambassadorial residence. The reason for the invitation was not shared beforehand. Viewing it as an “occasion for our first introductions 11 months after becoming chairperson,” Lee said she went “lightheartedly, figuring we would just be ‘saying hello.’” Meeting her not at a luncheon or dinner but in a conversation over tea that lasted for over 30 minutes at 2 pm that day, Harris “started going on about ‘5 billion’ [the amount demanded by Washington for South Korean’s share of defense costs] as soon as I said ‘nice to meet you’ and sat down,” Lee recalled.

“I didn’t count, but it felt like 20 times at least,” she remembered. Every time she attempted to steer the conversation toward a different topic, Harris would begin talking about “5 billion” again.

“I was taken aback, really astonished,” Lee said. “I’ve seen a lot of ambassadors over the past decades, but this was a first.” It was an arrogant and impolite display from the US ambassador toward the chairperson of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee.

In diplomatic circles, Harris’s reputation precedes him. Reporters have lambasted him as “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.”

But the US ambassador is also a proxy for Donald Trump, president of South Korea’s sole ally the United States. Extricating North Korea and the US from their tangle of antagonistic relations and nuclear issues and navigating the “Cold War valley” toward permanent peace will require the power of South Korean democracy to rein in a historically bad US ambassador. In addition to wisdom from the Moon Jae-in administration and the National Assembly, this is a moment that also calls for civil society to make its voice heard.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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