The White House formally nominated Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris on Friday to fill the long-vacant post of ambassador to South Korea, as the U.S. gears up for the planned first-ever talks between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader on June 12 in Singapore.
The White House praised Harris in a statement as “a highly decorated, combat proven Naval officer with extensive knowledge, leadership, and geopolitical expertise in the Indo-Pacific region.”
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Harris would fill a key diplomatic posting that has been vacant since Trump took office in January last year.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had in February nominated Harris to be ambassador to Australia, but switched gears late last month when then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, asked him to take the post in Seoul instead as diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis intensified.
The surprise move also came as Trump sought to beef up his team on the Korean Peninsula ahead of the landmark meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Harris, who is half-Japanese and was the first Asian-American to achieve the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy, could play a key role in helping to rein in the North’s nuclear weapons program.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, Harris called North Korea the United States’ “most urgent security threat in the region.”
“The Republic of Korea and Japan have been living under the shadow of North Korea’s threats for years,” he said. “Now, that shadow looms over the American homeland.”
Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States in striking distance.
Harris said that while he was “encouraged by recent developments,” including the Trump-Kim summit, Washington could not be overly optimistic about the outcome and needed to go into it with “eyes wide open.”
North Korean state-run media criticized Harris when he took up his post in 2015, calling him “a brass hat with a negative view on the DPRK.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The White House had reportedly planned to nominate Korea hand and former George W. Bush national security council official Victor Cha to be U.S. ambassador to Seoul. But that nomination was nixed after months of vetting Cha, for reasons that remain unclear, although purportedly it was because of his opposition to limited military strikes against the North.
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, voiced reservations about having a former top military official occupying the ambassadorship “under normal circumstances,” noting that such a move could cause conflict with “the U.S. Forces Korea commander already there.”
“But these are not normal times, and I think Trump can benefit from an experienced admiral with a strategic mindset and established credibility within the administration,” Oba said. “It’s clear military people carry extra credibility in this administration.”
“From the perspective of leading a large diplomatic mission, a military officer might be a lot better than someone whose background is in academia or smaller organizations” such as the National Security Council, Oba added. “Military commanders are trained to be executive leaders of large organizations, and that’s a skill political appointees often lack.”
Harris has also been known as an outspoken backer of a strong response to China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China seas, coining the term “Great Wall of Sand” to describe Beijing’s strategy of building up and militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea.
In May, Kyodo News reported that Beijing had urged Washington to fire Harris in return for boosted pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea, citing an anonymous source.
Harris, who was born in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, but was raised in the United States, has long been a subject of interest for China. Beyond his Great Wall of Sand speech in March 2015, in which he denounced Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea, his heritage has also made him an attractive target for a Chinese leadership that routinely blasts Japan over an alleged lack of atonement for its brutal wartime past — often as a means of whipping up nationalist sentiment.
China’s state-run media has routinely used his ethnicity to tarnish Harris’ image, including in a February 2016 commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency.
“Some may say an overemphasis on the Japanese background about an American general is a bit unkind,” Xinhua wrote. “But to understand the American’s sudden upgraded offensive in the South China Sea, it is simply impossible to ignore Adm. Harris’s blood, background, political inclination and values.”
The appointment and Harris’ background could also stir up long simmering tensions between Japan and South Korea.
The Korean Peninsula was subject to Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945.
“Any link to Japan can be a lightning rod for Korean public opinion,” Oba said. “Adm. Harris’ Japanese heritage shouldn’t be a factor — American is American. But close observers of Korea will know better than to rule out that it can at least color how Koreans perceive his actions and words as ambassador.”