U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris [U.S. EMBASSY IN KOREA]
U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris warned that one of the biggest issues facing Seoul-Washington relations is the “malign attempt” by those trying to create the perception of a “crack” in the alliance.
However, Harris told the Korea JoongAng Daily earlier this month in a written interview conducted to mark the newspaper’s 20th anniversary, “Ours is a relationship forged in blood, and I am confident the alliance will be ironclad going forward, no matter who is president — not just as of Jan. 20, 2021, but well beyond.”
His remarks follow the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3 and the victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden over Republican incumbent President Donald Trump.
Harris went on to say that any attempts to undermine the Seoul-Washington alliance now and in the future will be futile, noting, “Our alliance isn’t brittle. We use the term ‘ironclad’ for a reason. We know that — even if those who wish our alliance ill don’t want it to be true.”
On what to expect from a Biden presidency, Harris reiterated the message from his video remarks posted on Twitter shortly after the U.S. presidential election and said, “I remain confident that we’ll have a leader who values the U.S.-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance and is prepared to work together to maintain its strength into the future.”
Harris also addressed the rising rivalry between the United States and China, which has often placed South Korea in an awkward position balancing relations between its longtime ally and its largest trading partner.
“‘The other side’ is busy trying to tell the world that it was defending the peninsula against invasion when it sent hundreds of thousands of troops south of its borders to fight against South Koreans and their UN allies and to deny South Koreans’ right to determine their own future,” said Harris. “When false history and false information masqueraded as truths, the people — and media — of the Republic of Korea immediately recognized those claims for exactly what they were: Blatant revisionist history.”
Harris pointed to the backlash against BTS by Chinese netizens after a remark made by the group’s leader RM honoring those sacrificed during the Korean War while receiving the Korea Society’s 2020 Van Fleet Award in October. The band member had referred to the “history of pain that our two nations shared together” in recognition of the Seoul-Washington relationship.
Regarding Seoul’s position straddling between Beijing and Washington, he added, “If there is a choice to be made, that choice is about values, and shared beliefs: Authoritarianism on one side and freedom and democracy on the other.”
On the feasibility of a declaration to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a ceasefire, as being pushed by the Moon Jae-in administration, Harris noted that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the “suite of issues with respect to the denuclearization of North Korea would obviously include documents that would resolve the state of war between North and South Korea.”
Harris was the first Asian-American to hold a four-star rank in the U.S. Navy and serve as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command before being posted as U.S. ambassador to Seoul in July 2018.
Last month, he tweeted his congratulations to four Korean-Americans elected to the U.S. Congress — Young Kim and Michelle Steel of California, Marilyn Strickland of Washington and Andy Kim of New Jersey, calling it “a first.”
Harris said of the recent election, “The fact that we had the most diverse election with the highest turnout in U.S. history, all during a deadly pandemic, is further proof that the United States will always continue to be a champion of democracy.”
The following are edited excerpts from interview.
Q. How do you diagnose the current status of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and what direction do you see the alliance going with a new U.S. administration?
A. Our alliance is ironclad. It has been so since we fought alongside each other 70 years ago when North Korea, backed by the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Ours is a relationship forged in blood, and I am confident the alliance will be ironclad going forward, no matter who is president — not just as of Jan. 20, 2021, but well beyond. But it’s not just military ties between our two great nations that bind us together.
Over 1.5 million Koreans have studied in the United States. Korean culture, food, music and cinema are widely available and consumed all across America and the world. K-pop groups such as BTS, Blackpink and TXT all chart on the Billboard charts in the U.S., and BTS keeps breaking barriers and setting new records — most recently with its first Grammy nomination. Korean cinema, too, is critically acclaimed, with “Parasite” taking home four Oscars at this year’s Academy awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there is consistent interest among Americans to learn Korean. The United States and, frankly, the rest of the world, look to South Korea’s shining example for inspiration on how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic — evidenced in Time’s inclusion of KDCA [Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency] Director Jeong Eun-kyeong on its list of the 100 most influential people of 2020. On the flip side, American culture can be seen in so many forms throughout South Korea, often transformed and fused into part of Korea’s own extraordinary culture. So, as you can see, the private relationship our two countries have on a person-to-person level is only growing closer. That doesn’t even take into consideration the work our governments do together across a wide range of humanitarian and social issues, and of course, the denuclearization of North Korea.
A growing and maturing economic dimension undergirds our relationship. Our joint efforts to promote fair trade between our nations have resulted in an increase in two-way trade every year since 2015. Our investment relationship has also evolved. U.S. companies continue to be the top source of investment into South Korea. That’s worth repeating. American foreign direct investment in Korea tops all other countries’. But now South Korean companies are also investing in the United States at record levels. These Korean firms benefit from a liberal, dynamic market economy and a political environment that is guarded by democracy, values both our countries share and cherish.
Q. What do you think are the biggest issues facing the Korea-U.S. alliance?
A. We only have one president at a time, and the next presidential administration starts on Jan. 20. I simply cannot speculate on what the next administration’s approach to these issues will be, other than to reiterate what I said in my election day video message: I remain confident that we’ll have a leader who values the U.S.-ROK alliance and is prepared to work together to maintain its strength into the future. As for right now, today, I can say that one of the biggest issues I think our alliance faces is the malign attempt by some to find — or worse yet, to create the perception of — a “crack” in the alliance. Our alliance isn’t brittle. We use the term “ironclad” for a reason. We know that — even if those who wish our alliance ill don’t want it to be true.
Q. It has been nearly a year since the bilateral defense cost-sharing deal, or the Special Measures Agreement [SMA], expired, and negotiations have been stalled amid the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election. What do you believe constitutes a “fair and equitable” burden-sharing?
A. While Covid-19 has caused so much to come to a halt, the conversation about appropriate burden-sharing continues. So, considering how close our nations are, the question we really need to ask going forward is what is “fair and equitable?” As co-equal partners, I have faith that the ROK will work with our negotiators to contribute fairly and equitably in a way that befits South Korea’s status, both within our alliance and on the world stage.
Q: What can we expect on policy toward the Korean Peninsula from a Biden presidency, and should we be concerned about North Korea returning to a path of provocation? Do you believe North Korean denuclearization negotiations will go back to square one, or a “strategic patience” approach, under a new U.S. administration?
A. I think the best thing for all of us — especially if North Korea hopes to have a brighter future for its people — is for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to abandon provocations and instead uphold the promise Chairman Kim [Jong-un] made to President Trump to denuclearize. We believe that there’s an important, good outcome for global peace and stability and for the North Korean people, and we hope we can get back to the table and begin to have those discussions.
Q. Is an end-of-war declaration, as being proposed by the Moon Jae-in administration, feasible in the near future?
A. As far as an end-of-war declaration, Secretary Pompeo has said that the suite of issues with respect to the denuclearization of North Korea would obviously include documents that would resolve the state of war between North and South Korea.
Q. There is concern in Seoul about the intensified Sino-U.S. tensions. Can we expect some de-escalation under a new U.S. president, or as some analysts point out, will the United States be taking a hard-line stance toward China regardless of the administration?
A. The United States has partnered well with the PRC[People’s Republic of China]on several important fronts, and we have a robust economic relationship. But, the United States and Beijing fundamentally disagree on how to approach the international order. We ask like-minded partners and allies like the Republic of Korea to join us in calling out the Chinese Communist Party’s malign actions, actions that suppress the freedoms that our two countries have fought and died for – for example, the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion, not to mention the concepts of a free market system and personal privacy, just to name a very few of our shared values. The PRC uses its political and economic weight to muzzle perceived critics, such as BTS’s RM when he merely commented on Korean and American soldiers sacrificing themselves for the good of South Korea.
Ultimately, what the United States seeks from our relationship with the PRC is actually very straightforward: That Beijing abides by simple and powerful standards expected of any nation with aspirations to play a constructive role on the global stage. Does Korea expect the same of the PRC? I see it throughout the Korean media and especially my interactions with Koreans themselves — the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Q. What do you think South Korea’s role is amid such rivalry between the United States and China, and will Washington ask Seoul to choose sides? Some U.S. officials have said South Korea should participate in an expanded Quadrilateral Dialogue, or “Quad” — what does this signify?
A. It’s not about choosing between countries. If there is a choice to be made, that choice is about values, and shared beliefs: Authoritarianism on one side and freedom and democracy on the other, if you will. The Republic of Korea knows who its friends are: Those who chose freedom, the rule of law, human rights and justice when they stood alongside the young Republic to fend off an attack from the north 70 years ago this year. The ROK continues to renew that choice every day since. In doing so, it has become a thriving, successful democracy. The citizens of South Korea participate in free and fair elections, frequently exercise their rights to protest — no matter the reason or political persuasion — and enjoy one of the world’s strongest economies.
“The other side” is busy trying to tell the world that it was defending the peninsula against invasion when it sent hundreds of thousands of troops south of its borders to fight against South Koreans and their UN allies and to deny South Koreans’ right to determine their own future. When false history and false information masqueraded as truths, the people — and media — of the Republic of Korea immediately recognized those claims for exactly what they were: Blatant revisionist history.
Q. Washington has often played a reluctant mediator role between Seoul and Tokyo, though less so in recent years. What direction do you see Korea-Japan relations taking in the coming months, especially with a new Japanese administration, and what role do you think the United States will or should be playing?
A. Korea-Japan relations are of the utmost importance when it comes to regional security — when the United States, Korea and Japan stand together, the region is far more secure. The simple reality is that no important security or economic issue in the region can be addressed without both the ROK and Japan’s active involvement. As you know, we don’t take sides on these issues, but we really hope that both Korea and Japan — our friends and allies — work to ensure a lasting solution to the causes of the bilateral tensions. We hope to see amicable dialogue that leads to a solution that promotes much-needed healing.
Q. You are a pioneer yourself, as the first Asian-American to serve as commander of the United States Pacific Command (Pacom), among many roles. What do you think about a more diverse U.S. administration and Congress, including the recent election of four Korean-Americans in the congressional race?
A. I was excited to read that news! In fact, you may have noticed that I tweeted my congratulations. The United States is such a diverse nation in just about every sense of the word. Having representation that reflects that diversity is a good thing, indeed. But what is more important is that people of all backgrounds — race, gender identity, religion, political views, sexual orientation, and so on — have decided to get into politics and make sure the voices of their communities, whatever they may be, are heard. Even more important is the fact that these are who the American voters have freely chosen to represent them. The fact that we had the most diverse election with the highest turnout in U.S. history, all during a deadly pandemic, is further proof that the United States will always continue to be a champion of democracy.
Q. You have been posted as ambassador to South Korea since 2018 — what it has been like serving as the top U.S. diplomat here during a global pandemic?
I recently gave a virtual lecture to students at Gachon University, and I noticed on the screen that one of those students was participating in the class while on the subway. The subway! That would be near impossible in the United States for instance, as Wi-Fi and cell services would inevitably cut out from station to station. This was an impressive moment to me. Despite being unable to travel, technology has enabled me to continue reaching out to students all over the country; the student on the subway thought nothing of it, masked up and taking a class while literally “on the go,” and Korea’s 21st century communications network enables your young people to do what they need to do, how cool is that!
Q. Where do you see South Korea-U.S. relations going in the next 20 years?
A. The alliance will continue to be as strong as it has always been. Korea will continue to play an increasingly large role in the region and in global affairs. And, of course, we will be doing it together.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]