South Korea’s presidential office on Friday publicly rebuked the US ambassador for urging consultations over president Moon Jae-in’s plans for joint projects with the nuclear-armed North, calling his remarks ‘very inappropriate’.
Seoul and Washington are security allies and the US stations 28,500 troops in the country to defend it from the nuclear-armed North, but their relations are sometimes strained.
US President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric towards Pyongyang in 2017 provoked alarm in the South, and more recently it has been stung by his demands that it pay $5 billion a year towards the American troops’ costs.
They have also differed in their approach towards the North: negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a standstill since the Hanoi summit collapsed in February last year, and Pyongyang recently announced the abandonment of its nuclear and missile test moratoriums.
But Moon has maintained his efforts to push engagement - despite a series of rebukes from Pyongyang - and earlier this week raised the prospect of Southern tourist visits to the North.
Tourism itself is not subject to international sanctions, but some related aspects could become issues, such as financial transfers.
US ambassador Harry Harris told reporters on Thursday that Seoul should coordinate with Washington on such plans and they should be ‘run through’ a joint working group to avoid any ‘misunderstandings’.
It was not Washington’s role to ‘approve or disapprove’, he said, ‘but we are Korea’s only ally, we do have 28,500 American troops here, American taxpayers pay billions of dollars to defend this country, so we have an interest in inter-Korean dialogue.’
Seoul dismissed his comments Friday, saying it was ‘very inappropriate’ for the ambassador to respond to the media on Moon’s proposal.
‘It is up to our government to make decisions when it comes to matters of inter-Korean co-operation,’ a Blue House official told reporters.
Harris has several times been the object of controversy in South Korea, accused of high-handedness and even his moustache has proved controversial.
The US envoy’s mother was Japanese and with Koreans still bitterly resenting Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonisation of the peninsula, commentators claimed the facial hair alluded to governors-general of the past.
Harris told reporters Thursday his duty was to present and defend US policy, and accepted that he would be criticised if it was unpopular in the South.
‘The notion that somehow I’m supposed to be the ambassador of South Korea to Washington is flawed,’ he said. ‘My job as the ambassador is to represent the interests of the United States.’
His moustache, he added, was a matter of personal choice, and his critics were ‘cherry picking history’, with many Korean independence fighters and other historical figures also sporting whiskers on their upper lips.
‘I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the countries but I’m not the Japanese American ambassador in Korea, I’m the American ambassador to Korea.
‘And to take that history and put it on me simply because an accident of birth I think is a mistake.’
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Asia