|U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris speaks during an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae, Park Ji-won
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has become the center of criticism amid the rocky negotiations on determining Seoul's share of the costs for the maintenance of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
Multiple press reports have raised concerns about whether the 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 particular, the U.S. envoy is said to have some "intentional misperceptions" about President Moon Jae-in, which may add to U.S. distrust of the South Korean leadership and government.
This situation is an undesirable one with regard to bilateral relations, political analysts and lawmakers said Monday, as the two allies already have differing views over the definition of "fair and equitable defense costs." There are also major differing viewpoints on a range of other security-related issues, such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Both of these issues have fueled concern among Moon's critics that the Korea-U.S. alliance is not what it used to be.
A case in point fueling public discontent toward Harris was his meeting with a group of Korean lawmakers, Sept 23. According to reports quoting the lawmakers, Harris inquired about reports that Moon was surrounded by people with "leftist inclinations" who tended to side with North Korea.
The lawmakers, including Reps. Kim Hak-yong and Ahn Sang-soo of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), belong to a bipartisan National Assembly group on "Korea's future innovation." As head of the group, Kim is known to have apologized to Harris for the leaking of some of the remarks made during their "undisclosed" meeting.
One lawmaker even sought to get Harris expelled from the country amid the rising criticism of him, and by extension the U.S., for what many Koreans deem as "excessive" demands in the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations that determine the sharing of costs for the USFK.
Rep. Kim Jong-hoon of the minor Minjung Party called for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to designate the four-star general as "persona non grata," whose entry into the country and stay here is prohibited by the government.
"Since arriving in Korea, Ambassador Harris has incessantly meddled in South Korea's policies regarding unification and national security," Kim said during a press conference at the National Assembly, Nov. 27. "He exerted undue pressure on the government and politicians to push the increase in defense cost-sharing and extension of the GSOMIA." He added that the ambassador should see it as his duty to deliver the highly negative sentiment among Koreans about the negotiations to Washington. Protests have been ongoing in central Seoul against President Donald Trump's demands, which have also been criticized within U.S. political circles
Some lawmakers who have met Harris in person have claimed that his manner of speech and behavior sets him apart from previous U.S. envoys who have been respectful toward Korea.
"I won't go to the U.S. Embassy to have a meal there as long as U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris is serving in the post," Rep. Lee Jae-jung, spokeswoman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) told reporters at the National Assembly. Lee added that he is the "most impolite" ambassador she has ever met. She also pointed out that Harris is unusual for an ambassador whose primary duty lies in bridging the two countries and improving bilateral relations.
Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, chairwoman of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, said her meeting with Harris in the ambassador's residence was humiliating as the envoy used it to pressure her about increasing Korea's defense cost-sharing to $5 billion. The lawmaker said the U.S. Embassy didn't let her know the agenda beforehand adding that when she met with Harris, the envoy started talking about the cost-sharing from the beginning of the talks. This is considered an apparent move to influence the ongoing South Korea-U.S. SMA negotiations as only the National Assembly has the authority to approve the defense cost-sharing deal.