|U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris ― without mustache.|
By Oh Young-jin
If you feel clueless about what I am talking about, it is not your fault. Nor is it mine, or so I like to think. As the writer of this column, I feel obligated to fill you in about my topic of the day and why and how it could take us back to the past.
I am talking about a controversy regarding American Ambassador Harry Harris' mustache that only two weeks ago was blowing up as a major diplomatic rupture between Korea, the U.S. and by extension Japan.
Now few would readily remember the Harris mustache incident, the whole world being preoccupied by the Wuhan pneumonia or coronavirus.
We will survive the epidemic as we did with SARS or MERS, the previous epidemics that befell us. So, one way or another, Harris' facial hair will come back to us because it captures a fast-evolving Korea-U.S. alliance and, more broadly, indicates the future map of this region.
Here is a recap.
First, The Korea Times ran a story after an interview with Harris about his mustache reminding some Koreans of the infamous Japanese governor generals during Japan's 1910-45 colonial occupation, an accusation that has as much to do with his racial background as the son of an American father and a Japanese mother. He declared that he was the U.S. ambassador to Korea, not the Japanese U.S. ambassador to Korea, pointing out that it was not just Japan's high officials but Korean independence fighters who sported mustaches.
Then, he met a group of foreign media representatives, basically repeating himself. There, some media described Harris' appointment as an affront to many Koreans, who regard Japan as an archrival and seethe with anger over its occupation that ended more than 70 years ago. Other media outlets took issue with Korea's national resentment of Japan and portrayed it as race-motivated rather than being based on history.
Adding fuel to the fire was Harris' comment to the effect that Korea's plan to allow individual tours of North Korea should be dealt with first through their bilateral channel. Pro-Chinese Rep. Song Young-gil of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea invoked the ambassador's Japanese background and the stiff-necked U.S. approach to Korea, when he accused Harris of acting like the Japanese colonial masters. The presidential office also chided the U.S. ambassador for meddling in Korea's sovereign affairs. The public was angered by the whole affair, calling Harris persona non grata.
What is the dynamic behind this brouhaha?
First, the elements that are plain to see. Rep. Song's accusation drew keen public attention and scored well ahead of the April 15 general elections. Any politicians would take an opportunity to impress the voters. Song, Incheon-based four-term lawmaker, is set to seek his fifth term but is likely to move to a new constituency. Cheong Wa Dae's intervention can be read in the same vein to raise the ruling camp's profile, rallying supporters and attracting fence-sitters. Although foreign affairs alone do not register high among voters, emotional issues such as those related to Japan and the U.S. provide a precious dose of sway to tip the electoral balance. The current government is ideologically driven, trying to be "independent" of the U.S. and realigning itself closer to China.
Then, the election politics only scratch the surface. More fundamental is that Koreans feel wronged by the Japanese and that piece of history is handed down from old to new generations. So before some Koreans' eyes, Harris has already sinned for being half Japanese. His straightforward manners that sometimes defy established diplomatic niceties only add to this. Also in play are Korea's feelings of ambivalence ― appreciating the U.S. for serving as protector of Korea's peace and freedom but feeling increasingly uncomfortable with its interventionism. Perhaps, the situation is comparable to feeling our clothes are too small we grow up. As Korea gets bigger, more bones of contention with the U.S. emerge. Korea's recent move to terminate its military pact with Japan over U.S. opposition is one such symptom of growing pains. Surely, left without a compromise, the alliance would run aground sooner or later, as the challenges multiply.
Now, the two sides should take a step back to see where their alliance is and where they want to take it. This would put Seoul and Washington into perspective, aiming for common goals instead of one-upmanship or short-term actions. Then, Harris' Japanese background would be less an o an issue here and consequently Song's accusation would find little traction.
Meanwhile, I suggest that Harris shaves his mustache for a change. Harris told me that he would shave if it could help him do a better job and that the mustache was intended to mark a break from his long military career. He has had it long enough to leave few doubting that he is a civilian. Considering the reactions, a Harry without hair would be better liked, which would not hurt his job performance. And that could be an ultimate act of diplomacy that would silence his detractors. Just one shave would mean a great deal.
Oh Young-jin (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of content for The Korea Times.