By Mark Tokola
First, there was widespread relief that we finally have a new Ambassador to South Korea, retired Admiral Harry B. Harris. It has seemed more than odd not to have had an American Ambassador in Seoul during the eventful past year-and-a-half. Then, commentators began speculating on the meaning of this particular appointment. One Korean friend asked me if it didn’t send a very mixed message to be sending a formerly high-ranking military officer as Ambassador at the same time the Administration is pursuing a diplomatic path with North Korea. Doesn’t that show a lack of faith in the peace process?
My answer to the question was that at a time when we are managing the postponement or scaling back of joint military exercises; when we must be particularly insightful regarding the balance of forces (including weapons of mass destruction and cyberwar capabilities) between North Korea and the alliance; and when the security relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea may be evolving, military experience probably is exactly what is needed.
That said, Ambassador Harris is not going to Seoul to represent the Pentagon or the uniformed services. As Ambassador, he will be responsible for the full range of diplomatic relations between the United States and South Korea and will work under the direction of the Secretary of State as well as of the President. The individual responsible for military-to-military relations will continue to be the four-star officer who serves as Commander U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the United National Command (UNC), and the Combined Forces Command (CFC).
Although a Naval Officer from the time he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1978 until he retired as Commander of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) in May 2018, that does not mean that Ambassador Harris is unfamiliar with the “big picture.” While Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and then as PACOM Commander, Ambassador Harris has spent the past five years closely following all events of significance in Asia, political and economic as well as military. He will bring a rich and up-to-date experience to the job – frankly, far more than most new ambassadors.
It’s worth noting, too, that like many of the most senior U.S. military officers, he has spent part of his career outside of narrowly military affairs: he studied international relations and the ethics of war at Oxford University and at Georgetown University, where he was a Fellow in the School of Foreign Service. We have had a string of high-caliber and effective American Ambassadors in Seoul over the years, that seems to be continuing.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo via Yokota Air Base.