[Reporter’s notebook] Harry Harris’ rudeness and Trump’s disregard for US allies

Posted on : 2019-12-11 17:23 KST Modified on : 2019-12-11 17:39 KST
US ambassador’s remarks reflect Washington’s undervaluing of Seoul as ally
Members of the Korean University Student Progressive Alliance rally in front of the residence of the US ambassador in Seoul after scaling the residence’s surrounding walls on Oct. 18.
Members of the Korean University Student Progressive Alliance rally in front of the residence of the US ambassador in Seoul after scaling the residence’s surrounding walls on Oct. 18.

On Oct. 18, during a reception for foreign diplomats at the Blue House’s, 17 university students clambered up a ladder and over the wall of the residence of the US ambassador in downtown Seoul. The students then unfurled a banner in the residence yard demanding that Ambassador Harry Harris “get out of the country” for demanding that Korea raise its financial contribution to the US garrison by 400%. The university students were soon arrested for trespassing and hauled to the police station.

Top officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and the head of the North America Affairs Bureau, approached US Ambassador Harry Harris and explained what had happened at the residence and the measures taken by the police. When Kim Yu-geun, first deputy director of the Blue House’s National Security Office, made a personal apology and expressed his regret, Harris gave an unexpected response: “You should be sorry. It is your responsibility.” Rumor has it that the people present were taken aback by Harris’s rebuke to Kim Yu-geun.

There has been a steady drip of stories about Harris through remarks by politicians and reports in the media. A few days before South Korea and the US were set to hold another round of defense cost-sharing negotiations in Seoul on Nov. 18-19, Harris invited several opposition lawmakers to his residence, including Lee Hye-hun, a member of the Bareunmirae Party and chair of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee. The politicians in attendance recalled that Harris had explicitly asked South Korea to pay US$5 billion toward stationing US Forces Korea (USFK).

“He was so discourteous,” Lee said during a radio interview. “I’ve met many ambassadors over the decades, but this was a first.”

Harris became the center of controversy once again after reports belatedly surfaced that he’d asked a group of ruling and opposition lawmakers back in September what they thought of reports that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is surrounded by “leftists who sympathize with North Korea.” Explicitly or implicitly, the remarks constitute an ideological slur on the president and the administration of a US ally.

The assessments of senior government officials who’ve met Harris are generally similar. “Ambassadors typically serve as a bridge between two countries, at once speaking for their home country’s interests and also understanding the positions of their host country and conveying those positions to the people back home. But Harris doesn’t seem to be that kind of person,” one said.

“In the past, remarks by American diplomats were kept secret, because they could cause diplomatic problems, but Harris’s remarks keep coming to light. They’re basically being leaked because even people who value the South Korea-US alliance feel that his remarks are inappropriate,” another said.

About a month ago, a petition went up on the Blue House website basically calling for Harris to be kicked out of the country. The petition’s demands are unprecedented: declaring Harris “persona non grata” and having him expelled. As of Dec. 10, more than 1,400 people had signed the petition. It seems inconceivable that South Korea would expel the ambassador of the US, its only ally. But this undeniably reflects one aspect of South Korean public opinion toward the American ambassador.

The current controversy over Harris’s remarks is closely linked to the Trump administration’s values and its stance toward the South Korea-US relationship. In short, the Trump administration is willing to resort to any means, including naked force and overt pressure, to browbeat other countries into serving the US’ immediate interests. No exceptions are made for allied countries. Just one example is found in Trump’s remarks on Dec. 3 linking USFK to the cost-sharing agreement. For US troops to remain in Korea, Trump suggested, South Korea would have to pay its fair share of the cost.

There’s nothing particularly new about powerful countries pushing around smaller and weaker ones. But the attitude in evidence since Trump became resident — American officials’ nonchalance even when diplomatically problematic remarks and outright damage to the South Korea-US alliance are made public — seems to have become the “new normal” in the two countries’ relationship.

By Noh Ji-won, head of the Unification Diplomacy Team

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

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