So it’s confirmed: retired Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. will be the next ambassador to South Korea for the United States, finally filling a position left open since President Trump’s inauguration in January last year.
Harris enters the job with almost four decades of experience in the Navy, but also with high-level diplomatic exposure working as military representative to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in 2011.
Most recently, he served as commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) from May 2015 until last month, after which he shifted his focus to his upcoming ambassadorship.
His journey from military career man to, soon, a key diplomatic position under the U.S. State Department began earlier this year when he was nominated in February by President Trump to become the next ambassador to Australia.
Reports emerged in April, however, that, at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request, Trump decided to instead nominate him for ambassador to South Korea – coming officially with his formal nomination in mid-May.
Harris is a generally uncontroversial figure with wide support in the Senate, passing his initial confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a unanimous vote earlier this week on his way to final approval on Thursday.
But what can we expect from Harris as he steps in to fill this important role in U.S.-South Korea relations, especially amid the new flurry of negotiations with North Korea?
As a commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), his positions on North Korea stated in interviews or in testimony before U.S. lawmakers generally followed the official U.S. positions of the administrations under which he served – a pattern which should hold moving forward as South Korea seeks a reliable figure in the ambassador role.
Speaking with Time magazine in 2015 just after taking up his new role at USPACOM, Harris said North Korea was “the greatest threat we face.”
“They have an unpredictable leader who is poised, in my view, to attack our allies in South Korea and Japan,” Harris said. “He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally.”
“He kills people around him who disagree with him, and that’s something we should always keep in mind. North Korea keeps me up at night.”
FROM SOLDIER TO DIPLOMAT
He made a similar statement under the new Trump administration, at a time when military tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were at their highest in years.
Speaking in Tokyo in May 2017, he said: “The dangerous behavior by North Korea is not just a threat to the Korean peninsula… it’s a threat to the entire world.”
In February this year – before the U.S. began to substantially shift its position on North Korea but after inter-Korean tensions began to improve – Harris told the U.S. Congress as USPACOM commander that the threat from Pyongyang had “increased significantly” since his statement the previous year that it was “our most immediate threat.”
He detailed the various nuclear, military, and even cyber threats posed by North Korea and U.S. readiness in these areas, but left room open for diplomacy as his preferred channel for finding solutions, saying “the U.S. maintain a strong sense of resolve in order to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees.”
Harris repeated this statement again at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, where his position had shifted in line with ongoing negotiations with North Korea following numerous talks at high levels in previous months, including by Secretary of State Pompeo and during the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.
He said the change in U.S. policy under President Trump in recent months had created “breathing space for the negotiations to continue and to assess whether Kim Jong Un is serious on his part of the deal or not.”
Harris is a generally uncontroversial figure
Further signaling his commitment to Trump administration policy, he said he was “encouraged” by the shift away from military threats towards negotiations.
When asked by the Senate committee about his position on North Korean human rights, he said the issue should be part of ongoing discussions.
On denuclearization, he said that he believed the correct implementation would involve the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea.
The issue of CVID terminology has seen considerable coverage since the summit from top Trump administration officials, with Secretary Pompeo eventually saying the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” written in the Singapore agreement should be understood to mean CVID.
On sanctions, Harris said they must remain in place “until North Korea… demonstrates concrete steps towards denuclearization,” though he sought to distance himself from giving a timeline on the matter, saying instead that will be determined through further negotiations.
Here, Harris is alluding to his limited role in negotiations as ambassador, where his role will be more geared towards providing South Korea with a consistent and open counterpart on U.S. policy, who will serve as their immediate go-to in times where the two allies appear not to be on the same page.
OUR MAN IN SEOUL
Though the ambassador position has been filled temporarily by Chargé d’Affaires Marc Knapper at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, there have been instances since Trump came into office when U.S. policy changes broadcast by Trump appeared to catch Seoul off-guard.
Most recently, after Trump announced the suspension of joint U.S.-ROK military drills in a press conference following the summit with Kim Jong Un, a South Korean Ministry of Defense spokesperson said Seoul needed “clarification of the precise meaning and intention behind President Trump’s remarks.”
But Harris’s recent praise of current Trump administration positions means he will bring policy consistency to his new job – and perhaps even a communication line to Trump, who he met in Hawaii last November.
His role will be more geared towards providing South Korea with a consistent and open counterpart on U.S. policy
The hope for both sides is that, with Harris expected to travel to Seoul to begin his role in the coming weeks, miscommunication can be avoided as the new ambassador forms a relationship with his counterparts in South Korea.
“My father served in the Korean War and I grew up with a deep appreciation for Korean culture,” Harris said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of Defense
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