SEOUL — At a time of growing unease in the alliance between the United States and South Korea, a hairy diplomatic issue has surfaced: the American ambassador’s mustache, which has become an object of ridicule and resentment among many South Koreans.
On Thursday, the envoy, Harry Harris Jr. — a retired Navy admiral who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American Navy officer — defended his mustache in the face of some sentiment that it was a reminder of Japan’s brutal colonial rule over South Korea.
South Koreans hold a long-running animosity toward Japan because of that period, and many recall that Japanese governors-general who ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 wore mustaches.
“My mustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here,” Harris, 63, told foreign news reporters in Seoul on Thursday. “I have been criticized in the media here, especially in social media, because of my ethnic background, because I am a Japanese American.”
Harris, who became ambassador to Seoul in July 2018, said his decision to grow a mustache had nothing to do with his Japanese heritage. Clean-shaven for most of the time he served in the Navy, he said he had begun growing a mustache to mark his retirement.
When his appointment was announced, many South Koreans considered it a slight to their national pride for President Trump to have chosen a Japanese American as the top US envoy to their country.
And one of the first questions Harris was asked upon landing in South Korea was about his mustache, with some South Koreans apparently wondering whether it was a calculated insult to Koreans.
“Harris’s mother is Japanese. It feels like that alone is enough for us to dislike him,” wrote one Internet blogger last month. “Which side will he choose if he is asked to choose between South Korea and Japan?”
Harris’s appointment to Seoul also came as South Korea’s relations with Japan were at a low point over disputes rooted in Japan’s colonial rule. It occurred at a time when Trump was demanding a fivefold increase in South Korea’s annual contribution to covering the cost of maintaining 28,500 US troops on the Korean Peninsula.
Since taking up his ambassador’s post, Harris has tirelessly pushed for the Trump administration’s demand over the US troops on Korean soil. He has also channeled Washington’s pressure on South Korea to retract its decision to abandon a military intelligence-sharing deal with Japan that US officials considered important in guarding against China and North Korea.
That role helped Harris gain the image of an overbearing US envoy among many South Koreans. But behind their misgivings also lay issues with his ethnicity.
It didn’t take long for Harris to realize how even a little facial hair on a US diplomat with his ethnic background could stir Koreans’ deep-seated sentiments against Japan.
South Koreans’s attack on Harris turned more personal. Local news outlets scrutinized every comment and Twitter post by Harris.
“The mustache has become associated with the latest US image of being disrespectful and even coercive toward Korea,” The Korea Times said. “Harris often has been ridiculed for not being an ambassador but a governor-general.”
In a protest rally in downtown Seoul last month, young nationalist activists vented their anger by plucking mock mustache hair from a large photo of Harris.
“To those people, I say that you are cherry-picking history,” Harris said Thursday, noting that growing a mustache was popular not only in the West but also in Asia in the early 20th century, even among Korean leaders who fought for liberation from Japan. He has also said he has no plans to remove the mustache.
In October, South Korean police arrested more than a dozen student activists who broke into Harris’s residence to protest Washington’s demand for an increase in defense burden-sharing. The students held placards demanding that the ambassador leave South Korea.