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US ambassador to South Korea defends ‘disrespectful’ mustache

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  • The US ambassador to South Korea defended having a mustache amid allegations that his facial hair is a sign of US disrespect.
  • Harry Harris’ mustache has become a lightning rod for tensions between the US and South Korea as they debate the cost of hosting US troops on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Korean newspaper The Korea Times noted that some see Harris’ mustache as a symbol of the US “being disrespectful.”
  • Harris also said he has been criticized because he is Japanese-American amid historical animosity between Japan and Korea.
  • The Korea Times said some people were criticizing the mustache in a “racist context” because Japan’s governor generals in South Korea during occupation all had mustaches.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US ambassador to South Korea defended having a mustache amid allegations it was a sign of the US being “disrespectful” and suggestions that his facial hair reminded some people of Japan’s colonial rule over the country.

Speaking to The Korea Times last week, Harry Harris explained that he grew the mustache after leaving his military career as a Navy admiral and starting in diplomacy. 

“I wanted to make a break between my life as a military officer and my new life as a diplomat,” he said.

“I tried to get 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 mustache so I did that.”

Harris had the mustache when he was officially made the ambassador in July 2018 — filling the position which had been left empty since Trump took office in January 2017.

 

But the newspaper noted that Koreans had attached another significance to the mustache, and said that: “The mustache rather has become associated with the latest U.S. image of being disrespectful and even coercive toward Korea, especially after Washington’s demand that Seoul pay $5 billion toward the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).”

US President Donald Trump has accused South Korea of being a wealthy country but still relying on US forces, and South Korea said that the US was asking for a contribution of up to $5 billion a year to the cost of hosting the troops.

Harry Harris

Harry Harris in 2018, before the mustache.
Issei Kato/Reuters


Talks between the countries over the cost repeatedly broke down, and the US hinted in December that it was no longer treating $5 billion as the figure. Talks are ongoing.

The New York Times reported instances of Harris being unpopular with some Koreans, including young people plucking fake mustache hair from a large photo of him at a protest in December and activists breaking in to his apartment in October to protest Washington’s insistence that South Korea should pay more to house US troops.

Harris’ connection to Japan deepens criticism of his facial hair

Harris’ Japanese mother also appears to have played a role in Koreans’ perception.

The Korea Times wrote that: “Critics find the negative US image reminiscent of Japan’s brutal colonial rule, when all eight governors-general had mustaches.”

Japan brutally occupied Korea between 1910 and 1945, leading to decades of tension that remains today. The countries are currently in the midst of a trade war, largely born from history-driven animosity.

japan beer south korea

A sign saying “We do not sell Japanese products!” next to cans of South Korean beer at a grocery shop in Seoul, South Korea, in July 2019.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images


The Times described the reaction as “racist,” especially in light of Harris’ argument that some of the leaders who fought for Korea’s independence had mustaches, “but no one seems to focus on that.”

The Korea Times wrote: “The reason for this was that — in extreme cases — the critics were speaking from a racist context in reference to the ambassador’s Japanese background. He was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a US Navy officer.”

He separately told reporters on Thursday: “My mustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here,” he said.

“I have been criticized in the media here, especially in social media, because of my ethnic background, because I am a Japanese-American.”

In the interview with The Korea Times, Harris embraced his family but said he was loyal to the US role.

Harry Harris

US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris poses for a photo after a group interview at the ambassador’s residence in Seoul on January 16, 2020.
SEBASTIEN BERGER/AFP via Getty Images


“I am who I am. All I can say is that every decision I make is based on the fact that I’m American ambassador to Korea, not the Japanese American ambassador to Korea,” he said.

He repeated the point to reporters on Thursday: “I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the nations.”

“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.”

The New York Times reported that one Korean blogger wrote last month: “Harris’s mother is Japanese. ​It feels like that alone is enough for us to dislike him​. Which side will he choose if he is asked to choose between South Korea and Japan?”

South Korea Japan

South Korean protesters mark their 68th Independence Day in 2013 with anti-Japan signs in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images


When asked about whether he was considering shaving the facial hair, Harris said he had no plans and implied that the mustache had not affected him in the role: “I’m not sure — you would have to convince me that somehow the moustache is viewed in a way that hurts our relationship.”

Harris joked about his mustache on Twitter on Friday, where he shared a picture from Bloomberg reporter Jihye Lee of him holding a fake mustache on a stick.

 

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