SEOUL, South Korea: At a time of growing concern in the alliance between the United States and South Korea, a diplomatic problem has arisen: the mustache of the US ambassador, which has become the object of ridicule and resentment among many South Koreans.
On Thursday, the envoy, Harry B. Harris Jr., a retired Navy admiral who was born in Japan from a Japanese mother and an American Navy officer, defended his mustache against a feeling that it was a reminder of the brutal colonial from Japan. rule over South Korea.
South Koreans maintain a long animosity towards Japan because of that period, and many remember that the Japanese general governors who ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 wore mustaches.
“My mustache, for some reason, has become a point of fascination here,” 63-year-old Harris told foreign journalists in Seoul on Thursday. “I have been criticized in the media here, especially on social media, because of my ethnicity, because I am an American of Japanese origin.”
Harris, who became an ambassador to Seoul in July 2018, said his decision to grow his mustache had nothing to do with his Japanese heritage. Shaved for most of the time he served in the Navy, he said he had begun to leave a mustache to mark his retirement.
When his appointment was announced, many South Koreans considered it somewhat unpleasant for their national pride that President Trump has chosen a Japanese-American as the main envoy of the United States to his country.
And one of the first questions they asked Mr. Harris upon landing in South Korea was about his mustache, and some South Koreans apparently wondered if it was a calculated insult to Koreans.
“Harris’s mother is Japanese. It seems that that’s just enough for us not to like.” wrote an internet blogger last month. “Which side will you choose if you are asked to choose between South Korea and Japan?”
Mr. Harris’s appointment in Seoul also came when South Korea’s relations with Japan were at a low point over disputes rooted in Japan’s colonial government. It happened at a time when Trump demanded a five-fold increase in South Korea’s annual contribution to cover the cost of keeping 28,500 US soldiers on the Korean peninsula.
Since taking office as ambassador, Harris has tirelessly pressed for The Trump administration’s claim on US troops on Korean soil. He also channeled Washington’s pressure on South Korea to withdraw its decision to abandon a military intelligence exchange agreement with Japan that US officials considered important to protect against China and North Korea.
That paper helped Mr. Harris obtain the image of a dominant American envoy among many South Koreans. But behind their doubts there are also problems with their ethnicity.
Mr. Harris did not take long to realize that even a little facial hair in an American diplomat with his ethnic background could arouse the deeply rooted feelings of Koreans against Japan.
The South Korean attack on Mr. Harris became more personal. Local media reviewed each comment and post on Mr. Harris’s Twitter.
“The mustache has been associated with the latest American image of being disrespectful and even coercive towards Korea.” The Korea Times said. “Harris has often been ridiculed for not being an ambassador, but a governor general.”
At a protest rally in downtown Seoul last month, young nationalist activists expressed their anger by pulling the mock mustache hair out of a great photo of Mr. Harris.
“For those people, I tell them that they are harvesting cherries,” Harris said Thursday, and noted that letting the mustache grow was popular not only in the West, but also in Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, even among Korean Leaders who fought for Japan liberation.
In In an interview with The Korea Times last month, Mr. Harris said that throughout his career, his ethnicity had come into play only twice: by the Chinese and now by the South Koreans. When he was head of the Pacific Command of the United States, he was candid about China’s aggressive movements in the seas of eastern and southern China, and the Chinese state media often cited his ethnicity when he was attacked.
In October, South Korean police arrested more than a dozen student activists who broke into Mr. Harris’s residence to protest Washington’s demand for an increase in the distribution of the defense charge. The students held banners demanding that the ambassador leave South Korea.
“I understand the historical animosity that exists between the two nations,” Harris said Thursday, referring to Japan and South Korea, the two most important allies, and often disputes, in Northeast Asia.
“But I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea, I am the American ambassador to Korea,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to take that story and put it on just by birth accident.”
He has also said he has no plans to take off his mustache.