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As Trump Pressures South Korea, His Ambassador Feels the Heat

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Adviser Ivanka Trump chat together before a news conference by President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon…
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Adviser Ivanka Trump chat together before a news conference by President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon…

Retired Navy admiral faces difficult tasks on cost-sharing, alliance issues.

As U.S. president, Donald Trump is compiling a growing list of statements that have made many South Koreans uneasy. But as diplomatic tension increases between the United States and South Korea, it is Trump's ambassador to Seoul who is at the center of the storm.

Ambassador Harry Harris, a retired Navy admiral, is tasked with trying to sustain U.S.-South Korea relations even while helping push Trump's demand that Seoul drastically increase how much it contributes toward the cost of the U.S. military presence on the peninsula.

Perhaps predictably, it's been a bumpy ride.

For a second consecutive year, negotiators failed to reach an agreement before the military cost-sharing deal expired on December 31. At one point during this year's negotiations, the U.S. side stormed out, accusing South Korea of being "unresponsive" to U.S. requests.

The two sides haven't been able to resolve their differences during six rounds of talks. If they can't reach a deal soon, local Korean workers at U.S. military bases could be furloughed.

Trump's tough approach

No U.S. official has pushed South Korea harder, at least publicly, than Trump, who has for years complained that South Korea is a "freeloader" that is not paying enough for U.S. protection.

Trump has reportedly used an Asian accent to mock South Korea's president over the issue. In a speech last year, Trump suggested South Korea was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much."

When discussing the alliance, Trump routinely gets basic facts incorrect, such as the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the amount that South Korea pays for their upkeep, and the number of years the U.S. military has been in the country.

Harris criticized

But many South Korean media and politicians have directed their ire at Harris, who they see as too eager to push Trump's cost-sharing demands.

On the margins of South Korean society, some criticism of Harris, a Japanese-American, has taken on a racial component.

In recent months, small groups of fringe, anti-U.S. protesters have targeted Harris in a series of provocative demonstrations. At one event, protesters broke into Harris' residential compound, chanting for the ambassador to "go home."

That same loosely organized student group, which includes some members with pro-North Korea leanings, later held a small demonstration during which protesters plucked out fake mustache hairs from a large photo of Harris.

Harris' mustache

Harris' facial hair created international headlines last month, when a reporter for the Korea Times, an English language newspaper, asked the ambassador if he would shave his mustache in order to improve relations with the Korean people.

"My mustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here," Harris said last week during a briefing with foreign media. "I have been criticized in the media here, especially in social media, because of my ethnic background, because I am a Japanese-American."

The controversy comes as South Korea and Japan are engaged in a bitter trade dispute rooted in historical tensions over Japan's use of forced labor during its brutal colonial occupation of Korea.

While Harris acknowledged those tensions, he said it is a mistake to "take that history and put it on me simply because of accident of birth."
'Blown out of proportion'

Foreign media jumped on the story, with some outlets reporting South Koreans were in an "uproar" over the ambassador's mustache.

Those kinds of headlines struck many South Koreans as bizarre, since neither Harris' facial hair nor his Japanese heritage had been a major topic of mainstream South Korean political discussion.

The whole issue has been "blown out of proportion," said Lee Sang-sin, who studies South Korean public opinion at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "

It is quite possible that some Koreans - probably extreme left-wing, pro-North Korea factions - joke about the mustache. But they are not a significant part of the political discourse in Korea," Lee said.

Too outspoken?

But many South Koreans do take issue with Harris' overall approach, saying he is too outspoken.

Last week, Harris prompted a major backlash when he urged South Korea to consult with the United States on its plan to resume individual tours to North Korea - an initiative, he suggested, could violate international sanctions on Pyongyang, depending on what items the tourists bring to the North.

South Korea's government shot back, accusing Harris of making "very inappropriate" comments and declaring that Seoul's policy toward North Korea is a matter of national sovereignty.

A prominent ruling party lawmaker, Song Young-gil, compared Harris' attitude to that of a Japanese governor-general in the colonial era. "

Frankly, he seems to have lost trust among officials and politicians here," declared a Monday editorial in the Korea Times."

The point is not his mustache," the editorial continued. "South Koreans would not have cared that much about his mustache if he was a ‘normal' ambassador."

'Perfect storm'

But the situation may not improve as long as Trump takes such a firm stance on alliance issues like cost-sharing.

Harris is in "arguably a more difficult situation than any previous ambassador has faced," said Jeffrey Robertson, who studies diplomacy at Seoul's Yonsei University. "I'm not sure anyone could (make things better). It's really a perfect storm at the moment."

In his comments to foreign media last week, Harris acknowledged the South Korean frustration but suggested that he serves at the pleasure of the president. "

My job as ambassador is to represent the interests of the U.S. and our government's view on (defense) burden-sharing is well known," he said. "And I am going to reflect that view."