|A protester damages a photo of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harri Harris during a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 13, 2019. Korea Times file|
By Jung Min-ho
U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris is gaining the status of persona non grata among the Korean public, if not yet officially designated as such by the Korean government.
His words and acts that defy diplomatic protocols dismay and make Koreans feel humiliated. Conservatives and progressives agree on this assessment, which is rather unusual in the extremely polarized nation.
Since he took up the post in July 2018, Harris, a former admiral who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a U.S. Navy officer, has been under fire by even many conservatives, who in general view the United States and its representatives far more favorably.
The latest controversy came after he told foreign correspondents here on Jan. 17 that South Korea should consult the United States about its plans to resume individual tours to Mount Geumgang in North Korea if the South wants to avoid misunderstandings that could trigger sanctions.
His remark has drawn stinging criticism from Cheong Wa Dae and ruling party lawmakers as well as a street protest over the weekend. Some denounced Harris for "being rude" and "acting like a governor general" during Japanese colonial rule (1910-45).
The incident comes two months after he took flak for abruptly demanding a dramatic increase in Seoul's financial contribution to U.S. troops in South Korea during a meeting with Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, then chairwoman of the National Assembly's intelligence committee.
According to Doh See-hwan, a research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, perhaps Harris' biggest mistake was his poor handling of the issues surrounding the Seoul-Tokyo General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) after the government's announcement to pull out of the pact in a tit-for-tat move against Japan's export controls.
"Harris acted as if he was the U.S. ambassador to Japan instead of South Korea when dealing with the situation," Doh told The Korea Times. "Instead of mediating between the two sides fairly, he regurgitated Japan's reasoning to keep South Korea in the GSOMIA.
"He also recently said President Moon Jae-in was surrounded by pro-North Korean leftists … That's one of those things that a diplomat should not say, even if he or she believes so."
Harris is often compared with his predecessor Mark Lippert, who won the hearts and minds of many South Koreans with his thoughtful use of language and smile. After being attacked by a knife-wielding man in Seoul in 2015, he famously said, "The ground hardens after rain. Let's go together" in Korean ― a quote many still remember.
"Harris is too straightforward. He appears to be less tactful than Lippert, who knew how to deal with the media," said Shin Gak-soo, a former South Korean ambassador to Japan.
Some conservative Christian groups, normally staunch supporters of their country's alliance with the United States, also disapprove of Harris for showing up at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival and displaying a rainbow flag on the mission building to support LGBT rights ― a politically sensitive position even President Moon refused to take during his 2017 campaign.
"I don't understand why Harris as a diplomat would put himself in the middle of controversy by making pro-LGBT message on Twitter. I think it was a mistake," said Joo Joseph, leader of a group of protesters who demanded Harris take down the flag last year.
"If Harris does it again, we will continue to fight."