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Harris said what he had to say

Jan 22,2020
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Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Is it reasonable for the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the Moon Jae-in administration to attack U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris over his remarks that Seoul and Washington should have consultations before South Korea allows individual tours by its people to North Korea?

It is an unwritten law that a diplomat must not intervene in the domestic affairs of the host country. But that rule may not work when it involves an important matter for both countries with diplomatic relations. It is not unusual for ambassadors — who represent their country — to speak about their government.

The DP and the Moon administration are trying to say that individual tours to North Korea are a domestic matter pertaining to the realm of inter-Korean exchanges. But no one can successfully argue that tours going across the border would be irrelevant to Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. No matter who runs the tours, the Kim Jong-un regime will rake in enormous profits. And therefore, they would go against international cooperation to pressure the recalcitrant state to give up its nuclear weapons with economic sanctions.

North Korea’s nuclear programs are not just an issue for South Korea. They worry the entire international community. North Korea’s long-range missiles can fall anywhere, whether it is London, Beijing or New Delhi. Since the Kim regime publicly declared that it has developed nuclear weapons to counter American imperialism, the North Korean nuclear threat is clearly a matter of concern to the United States.

Some may say that individual tours are a petty matter. But let’s see if they are truly petty. Before Park Wang-ja, a South Korean tourist, was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in 2008 while staying at the Mount Kumgang resort, such tours were very popular with South Koreans. In 2006, 240,000 people visited the resort. In 2007, even more than that — 340,000 — visited the mountain in North Korea thanks to the reconciliatory mood created by the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Korea Konsult, a tour agency in Sweden specializing in trips to North Korea, said that a five-day tour to the North costs about 1,280 euros ($1,420) per person. The program includes round-trip Koryo Air tickets between Beijing and Pyongyang and four nights in a four-star hotel when a group of six to nine travels together. That is more expensive than a tour to Southeast Asia. But it is worth it to a person who has long dreamed about visiting the secluded country.

Let’s say that about 300,000 tourists visit North Korea a year. In this case, the country will earn about 480 billion won ($412 million). In 2018, North Korea’s total exports were only 386 billion won, which plummeted from 3.51 trillion won in 2016 because of three years of economic sanctions. If individual tours become popular, North Korea will be able to earn more than its total exports. As a matter of fact, South Koreans do travel around the world — frequently. In 2018, as many as 7.5 million South Koreans visited Japan, 3.4 million went to Vietnam, 1.7 million tripped to Thailand, and 1.6 million toured the Philippines.

Individual tours to North Korea would become cash cows that make a decisive contribution to advancing its formidable nuclear and missile programs. Therefore, telling the United States — a possible direct target of a North Korean nuclear attack — to not express its opinion on the matter is unreasonable.

Harris, a former admiral in the U.S. Navy, is not used to refined diplomatic rhetoric — and his language is a bit tough. But he did not say anything he should not. In the past, U.S. envoys were involved in dark moments of Korean history. But U.S. ambassadors stopped bossing around Korean presidents since the Roh Tae-woo administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After South Korea advanced, the U.S. ambassador deals with a vice minister of foreign affairs, not the president. Likening Harris to a Japanese viceroy during the colonial period is an act of self-depreciation and exaggeration.

Furthermore, it is extremely embarrassing to attack Harris as a pro-Japan politician because his mother was Japanese and his mustache reminds us of a Japanese viceroy decades ago. Notions like this only make South Korea a subject of ridicule around the world.

It is unacceptable to judge an ambassador from a country with multiple ethnic groups based on his ethnic background. Everyone must remember that Mike Honda — a former U.S. congressman who passionately advocated the cause of a number of Korean victims of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery — is a third-generation Japanese American.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 21, Page 30