The American Mustache Ruffling Feathers in South Korea

The facial hair of Ambassador Harry B. Harris Jr., who is Japanese-American, reminds many South Koreans of Japan’s colonial rule.

Ambassador Harry B. Harris Jr. defended his choice to wear a mustache, saying on Thursday that those who criticized it were “cherry-picking history.”
Ambassador Harry B. Harris Jr. defended his choice to wear a mustache, saying on Thursday that those who criticized it were “cherry-picking history.”Credit…Kat Wade/Getty Images
Choe Sang-Hun

By Choe Sang-Hun

Published Jan. 16, 2020 Updated July 27, 2020, 7:49 a.m. ET

SEOUL, South Korea — 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 B. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 United States envoy to their country.

And one of the first questions Mr. 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?”

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump was demanding a fivefold increase in South Korea’s annual contribution to covering the cost of maintaining 28,500 American troops on the Korean Peninsula.

Since taking up his ambassador’s post, Mr. Harris has tirelessly pushed for the Trump administration’s demand over the American 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 American officials considered important in guarding against China and North Korea.

On Thursday, Mr. Harris suggested that Washington be consulted when South Korea pursues new exchanges with North Korea — including the possibility of allowing its tourists to visit, which President Moon Jae-in raised this week — to ensure that no sanctions are violated in the process.

Such comments have helped to give Mr. Harris the image of an overbearing American envoy ​among many South Koreans. Asked Friday about the ambassador’s remarks on inter-Korean exchanges, a government spokesman, Lee Sang-min, said South Korea’s policy toward the North was “a matter of its sovereignty.” Senior members of the governing party accused Mr. Harris of “meddling in domestic affairs” and even “acting like a governor-general.”

But behind ​many South Koreans’ misgivings about the ambassador are issues with his ethnicity.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Harris to realize how ​even ​a little facial hair on an American diplomat with his ethnic background could ​stir Koreans’ deep-seated ​sentiments against Japan​.

A protest near Ambassador Harris’s residence in Seoul in November.
A protest near Ambassador Harris’s residence in Seoul in November.Credit…Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock

South Koreans’ attack on Mr. Harris turned more personal. Local news outlets scrutinized every comment and Twitter post by Mr. Harris.

“The mustache has become associated with the latest U.S. 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 Mr. Harris.

“To those people, I say that you are cherry-picking history,” Mr. Harris said​ on 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.

​In an interview with The Korea Times​ last month​, Mr. Harris noted that throughout his career, his ethnic background had come into play ​only ​twice — by the Chinese and now by South Koreans​. When he was head of the United States Pacific Command, he was outspoken about China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas, and China’s state-run news media ​often cited his ethnic background when attacking him. ​

​In October, the 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 defense burden-sharing. The students held placards demanding that the ambassador leave South Korea.

“I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the nations,” Mr. Harris said on Thursday​, referring to Japan and South Korea, the United States’ two most important — and often-squabbling — allies in northeast Asia​.

“But I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea — I am the American ambassador to Korea,” he said. “To take that history and put it on me simply because of accident of birth, I think, is a mistake.”

He has also said he has no plans to remove the mustache. ​