|Ambassador Harry Harris speaks with The Korea Times at Habib House in central Seoul, Jan. 20, his last day as the top U.S. diplomat in South Korea. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
Harris hints at door remaining open for Korea to join Quad
By Yi Whan-woo
Harry Harris, in his farewell to South Korea as the U.S. ambassador, expressed the hope that the Asian country will join the U.S. and its other allies to stop China's "malign influence" although not necessarily in the form of an expanded Quad.
Harris hinted that the door still remains open for the South to join the Quad, a security coalition of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, which he described as a "natural grouping" based on shared views and therefore can be expanded.
"I believe the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a malign influence in the region and the world," he told The Korea Times in an exclusive interview, Jan. 20, at Habib House, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador. "And I believe that it's important for democratic countries to call out China when China does things that are contrary to democratic, accepted rules to the world."
His remarks came a day ahead of his departure home, and hours before Joe Biden was sworn in as the new U.S. president.
Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, faces the challenge of countering China's geopolitical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Moon Jae-in administration has been concerned about possible unforeseen retaliation by China and has been hesitant to join the Quad.
This put South Korea in the ironic situation of being called a "linchpin" of regional peace and security by then-President-elect Biden during his telephone call with Moon, Nov. 12, but also perceived by China as the weakest link in the U.S. alliance.
Asked whether South Korea should join the Quad, Harris said he didn't know, but instead drew an analogy between the Quad and the U.S. college football conference divisions, such as the Big 10 and Big 12, whose number of teams do not necessarily match their respective names and have either expanded or shrank.
"There's nothing that says Quad has to have four teams … So with that, there's nothing that says Korea cannot be a part of Quad or not," he said. "I would hope that Korea will join us and other countries ― I did not say the Quad ― and holding China accountable for its actions in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong and in other places."
In relation to the Washington-Beijing row, Harris mentioned how China has been trying to wield influence on South Korea even at the cost of falsified arguments.
They include disputes over the origin of the 1950-53 Korean War as well as kimchi and hanbok amid the growing popularity of Korean culture worldwide.
"China can try to tell the world, they can try to tell South Korea that you are wrong about your own cultural heritage, whether we are talking about kimchi, whether we are talking about hanbok clothes or whether we are talking about the Korean War," Harris said. "But history is simply factual … I don't know how you can paint that in any other way than the truth."
A former Navy admiral, Harris served in Seoul from July 2018.
He grouped his most memorable moments here by political, historical and cultural events.
The political highlight was witnessing and being involved in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's 2019 summit with Trump in Hanoi, and their joint snap summit with President Moon in Panmunjeom.
Historically, he picked the Seoul government's remembrance activities on the 70th commemoration of the start of the Korean War.
On the culture side, he listed watching "Parasite" winning the 2020 Oscars, boy band BTS going global, and making kimchi and other Korean foods at the ambassadorial residence, among others.
He also cited South Korea's COVID-19 response and cooperation with other countries.
For instance, the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2020 took the general election in April of the same year into account in terms of safety measures against the virus, according to Harris.
"Everything associated with the pandemic is terrific from the perspective of how Korea responded and how Korea helped others," he said. "To me, to be a part of it, to benefit from it personally as well as watching Korea reach out and help other countries and how you managed it yourselves in Korea was dramatic."