17/01/2020 10:47 GMT

US Ambassador’s Moustache Inflames Washington And Seoul Tensions

Critics say Harry Harris' facial hair is reminiscent of the look sported by officials in the Japanese colonial government that ruled Korea from 1010 to 1945.

US Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris 

Amid a strained dialogue between Washington and Seoul over the prospect of reopening tourism with North Korea, one man’s facial hair has apparently become fair game.

More specifically, the moustache of Harry Harris, the US ambassador to South Korea has been targeted by some local media and anti-US activists, who have compared it with those of officials in the Japanese colonial government that ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Last year the Korea Times ran a piece entitled “the politics of US envoy’s moustache”, quoting Harris as revealing: “I wanted to make a break between my life as a military officer and my new life as a diplomat. I tried to grow taller but I couldn’t grow any taller, and so I tried to get younger but I couldn’t get younger. But I could grow a moustache so I did that.”

Some critics have attacked Harris more directly, with some even commenting on his Japanese-American heritage. Harris, who became a diplomat after 40 years in the military, was born to a Japanese mother and an American father.

In an interview with a local radio station, a ruling party politician compared him with a “governor general” of the Japanese government during the colonial period.

Speaking on Thursday, Harris also mentioned the public comments about his heritage and the mockery of his moustache - despite the fact that many famous Korean historical figures had similar facial hair.

“My moustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here,” Harris said at the briefing on Thursday.

In a protest outside the US Embassy in December, for example, activists plucked the moustache hairs from posters of Harris’ face.

“I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the nations,” Harris said of the lingering tensions between South Korea and Japan.

“But I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea — I am the American ambassador to Korea.”

Seoul and Washington have been at odds over a number of issues in recent years, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s desire to engage economically with the North, and a US demand that Seoul pay billions of dollars more to maintain its troops stationed in South Korea.

Harris told international media in Seoul on Thursday that it would be better for South Korea to run any plans to engage with North Korea through a joint working group established with the United States to avoid any “misunderstandings” that could trigger sanctions.

That drew a rebuke from an official at the presidential Blue House on Friday.

“It’s very inappropriate for the ambassador to make such a mention in the media over remarks by the president of the host nation,” the official said, speaking to media on condition of anonymity.

Harris said South Korea was a sovereign nation and noted that tourism is not banned by international sanctions imposed on the North. But he said some aspects of a tourism program could potentially run into trouble with sanctions.

A spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, declined to comment specifically on Harris’ remarks but said “our policy with regard to North Korea comes under our sovereignty.”