The US ambassador to South Korea is defending his mustache from allegations it signals US disrespect or Japanese colonial rule

sbaker@businessinsider.com (Sinéad Baker)
Harry Harris

SEBASTIEN BERGER/AFP via Getty Images

  • The US ambassador to South Korea has defended having a mustache amid allegations that his facial hair signals US disrespect and is reminiscent of Japanese colonization.
  • Ambassador 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.
  • The Korean newspaper The Korea Times described some of the criticism toward Harris as a racist reaction to the Japanese ancestry of his mother, given the historical animosity between Japan and Korea.
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The US ambassador to South Korea has defended having a mustache amid allegations that it signals US disrespect and reminds some people of Japan's colonial rule over the country.

Talking to The Korea Times last week, Ambassador Harry Harris said 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 already had the mustache when he officially became an ambassador in July 2018 — filling the position that had been left empty since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

But the newspaper noted that at least some Koreans had attached another significance to the mustache: "The mustache rather has become associated with the latest US image of being disrespectful and even coercive toward Korea, especially after Washington's demand that Seoul pay $5 billion toward the upkeep of the US Forces Korea."

Trump has accused South Korea of being a wealthy country but still relying on US forces, arguing it should therefore do more to help support the cost of hosting the troops.

Harry Harris

Issei Kato/Reuters

Talks between the countries over the cost have repeatedly broken 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.

"Critics find the negative US image reminiscent of Japan's brutal colonial rule, when all eight governors-general had mustaches," The Korea Times wrote.

Japan brutally occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, causing animosity that remains today. The countries are in the midst of a trade war that is largely born from history-driven animus.

japan beer south korea

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

The Korea Times described some of the negative reaction as overtly racist, quoting Harris as arguing that some of the leaders who fought for Korea's independence had mustaches but that "no one seems to focus on that."

The Korea Times wrote that "in extreme cases" critics were "speaking from a racist context in reference to the ambassador's Japanese background."

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?"

He separately told reporters in Korea on Thursday that he had "been criticized in the media here, especially in social media, because of my ethnic background, because I am a Japanese American."

Harry Harris

SEBASTIEN BERGER/AFP via Getty Images

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

"I am who I am," he said. "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 repeated the point to reporters on Thursday, saying he "understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the nations."

South Korea Japan

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Asked whether he was considering shaving the facial hair, Harris reportedly 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 mustache is viewed in a way that hurts our relationship," he said, according to The Korea Times.

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

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