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How the U.S. views the bashing

Jan 22,2020
PARK HYUN-YOUNG
The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The controversy over the remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris has crossed the Pacific and landed in the United States. After the U.S. government explained its position, major media in the United States reported about the controversy, showing how U.S. experts on the Korean Peninsula expressed their opinions. Because it is an issue that involves a diplomatic counterpart, it is necessary to review how America thinks.

People in Washington consider Harris’ comment — that President Moon Jae-in’s plan to facilitate individual tours by South Koreans to North Korea should be consulted on with the United States — very sensible. Individual tourism, in fact, does not violate United Nations sanctions, but goods and cash that tourists bring into the country can cause trouble. U.S. sanctions are under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department, not State Department. While the Department of State exchanges views with its counterparts, the Department of Treasury does not. It applies sanctions if conditions are met — rather mechanically. South Korea could be in trouble if it pursues a plan without consultation with the State Department.

The United States thinks that Harris’ comment that it is better to handle the matter through a Korea-U.S. working group to avoid the risks is reasonable. They think the ruling Democratic Party is stubborn as it criticized the U.S. ambassador for interfering with internal affairs.

“Consultation” is an expression frequently used between Seoul and Washington. So, they claim that it does not infringe on South Korea’s sovereignty. They contend that it is a just matter of keeping the promised sanctions as a UN member.

The State Department showed a position that has an even more negative connotation than that of Harris. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus asked allies to help the United States so that U.S. President Donald Trump can focus on making progress on the Singapore deal he made with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. That can translate into a request that South Korea should not get ahead of the United States on matters related to the denuclearization of the North.

Some U.S. experts think that Korean politicians vent their frustration on the ineffective handling of North Korea on the ambassador after South Korea failed to serve as an effective mediator and stimulator of North-U.S. negotiations. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that South Korea uses Harris as a “lightning rod” because it cannot blame Kim Jong-un for the failure. There were also suspicions that anti-American sentiment is being stirred for a political purpose ahead of the April 15 general election.

They link Koreans’ racist behavior, xenophobia and a culture of openly evaluating appearance on criticism to the mockery of Harris’ mustache and his background of having a Japanese mother. America, a multicultural and multiethnic society, would find it hard to understand.

South Korea is anxious for an improvement in inter-Korean relationship. Ortagus said that history shows diplomacy does not work overnight. This is the atmosphere in Washington.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 21, Page 28