The past few years have been rocky for US-South Korea ties, with the two countries disagreeing over long-running defence arrangements. More recently, however, relations between them turned prickly for a singularly unexpected reason– a moustache.
Since the arrival of US ambassador Harry Harris in Seoul in 2018, South Koreans railed against his facial hairstyle– a thick moustache that they thought was reminiscent of imperial Japan’s brutal suppression of their country for three and a half decades before World War II ended. Read in Tamil
Finally, on Saturday, the US Embassy in Seoul tweeted that Harris had gotten rid of the moustache, but for a different reason – to feel “a little cooler’ during the hot summer months”.
With help from his Senior Advisor @sykimsy, @USAmbROK Harris visited a classic local barbershop to become a little “cooler” during the hot summer months. Curious about how it went? Watch the video to find out more. pic.twitter.com/cpabketRfd
— U.S. Embassy Seoul (@USEmbassySeoul) July 25, 2020
The moustache row
For many in South Korea, the envoy’s moustache brought back painful memories of the country’s colonial period between 1910 and 1945, when the ruling Japanese governors also sported the facial hair.
The fact that Harris has Japanese heritage added to his troubles– he was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American navy officer.
When Harris became the ambassador to South Korea in 2018, many locals thought that sending a moustache-sporting official having Japanese lineage was a deliberate insult to their country. During a protest against US policies in 2019, protesters held placards that showed Harris’s face with cat whiskers instead of the facial hair.
In December 2019, the Korea Times said, “The moustache has become associated with the latest U.S. image of being disrespectful and even coercive toward Korea.”
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Harris insisted that he did not mean to offend anyone with his moustache, and began wearing it only after his decades-long career in the US Navy, where he had to be cleanly shaved. In an interview, Harris said, “I’m American ambassador to Korea, not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea.”
Finally this week, the ambassador got rid of the facial hair, but said that he had done so to reduce discomfort while wearing face masks during summer heat.
Glad I did this. For me it was either keep the ‘stache or lose the mask. Summer in Seoul is way too hot & humid for both. #COVID guidelines matter & I’m a masked man! Enjoyed getting to know Mr. Oh & appreciated his heartfelt words about how much he values the #USROKAlliance. https://t.co/ja2WMD49Fr
— Harry Harris (@USAmbROK) July 25, 2020
South Korea-Japan tensions
South Korea and Japan are America’s key trade and security partners in East Asia, with Washington having stationed thousands of US troops in the two countries for around seven decades now.
Despite South Koreans having painful memories of Japanese colonial rule, the two countries have since built a formidable trade relationship -– valued at $88 billion in 2018. In recent years, however, the colonial period has again haunted Seoul-Tokyo relations, in turn impacting Washington’s own standing in the region.
A major flashpoint arrived in late 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court held that Korean forced labour victims were able to claim compensation from Japanese companies. Japan was outraged, and said that a 1965 treaty between the countries brought an end to claims arising from the colonial period. Ties between the two countries have continued to be strained since then.
For decades, the US played the role of a mediator between the East Asian powers. This time, however, the US was seen having an indifferent approach, and President Donald Trump had been busy demanding billions more from Seoul and Tokyo for continued US troop presence.
According to The New York Times, US envoy Harris had been pushing Trump’s demand in South Korea, and had asked that Seoul consult with the US before pursuing exchanges with North Korea. This led to grumblings within South Korea’s ruling party, the report said, with some members even complaining that Harris was “acting like a governor-general”.
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