Korea’s choice is clear, says Harris
In an exclusive interview at his residence in central Seoul on Wednesday, hours after North Korea had launched another round of weapons tests that may have involved short-range ballistic missiles, Harris told the JoongAng Ilbo that China should not get a vote in how South Korea and the United States operate their relationship. He was referring to Beijing’s publication of a defense white paper that claimed the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system to South Korea “gravely damaged” the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Asked about the current diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan, which has grown into an escalating economic dispute, Harris stressed the importance of strengthening the tripartite defensive partnership with the United States so all three nations can effectively deal with issues like North Korea’s nuclear program or the recent intrusions of Russian and Chinese planes into Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone (Kadiz).
A former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Harris was tapped by U.S. President Donald Trump to be ambassador to South Korea in May 2018 to fill a post vacant for 16 months ahead of Trump’s first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He was sworn in on June 29, 2018.
Harris noted that the current environment in Korea is much nicer than during his previous job in 2017, and that further efforts to encourage peace were necessary to successfully realize the North’s “final, fully-verified denuclearization,” which he said would entail benefits for all parties.
Below are the edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. This morning, the news reported that a high-ranking U.S. government official called on Korea and Japan to come to a stand-still agreement so that both countries can refrain from further mutual retaliatory actions in their diplomatic row. Can you tell us more about that?
A. This is new news, I guess. If this was something in the newspapers, I’m not going to comment on it, because I’m not familiar with, as they call it, a standstill agreement. I will say that we are committed - the United States is committed - to strengthening the trilateral relationship between the ROK [the Republic of Korea, or South Korea], Japan and the United States. Especially, today, in 2019, as we try to together continue to pressure North Korea to follow the commitments that Kim Jong-un made - to abide by the United Nations (UN) sanctions and all the rest. We hope that Japan and Korea can work out their bilateral issues together. But again, we want to strengthen the trilateral relationship. I believe there are no economic or security issues in the region, in Asia, that can be addressed without the active involvement of Japan and Korea together. When Korea and Japan are at odds, it detracts from the important issues of dealing with the denuclearization of North Korea, the challenges posed by China and other issues. So, we hope that Japan and Korea can work out your bilateral issues.
Regarding the dispute between South Korea and Japan, the South Korean government seems to be asking for U.S. involvement. Seoul may be playing the Gsomia [General Security of Military Information Agreement, a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan] card in an effort to move the U.S. government to action. Can you comment on this?
A couple of things on Gsomia. I was involved in the effort to work the Gsomia for both Korea and Japan in my last job, so I am familiar with it. I believe that the Gsomia is indicative of the maturity of the defense relationship between Korea and Japan. It also is important because it improves our ability - and Korea’s and Japan’s abilities - to share information trilaterally - defense information, intelligence information - and it would be regrettable, I believe, if either Korea or Japan sought to terminate the agreement over the bilateral issues that are on the table between Korea and Japan.
Regarding whether it’s actually on the table, whether it’s actually being discussed by either Seoul or Tokyo as part of this ongoing dispute […] I couldn’t answer that. I’ve read what Japan has said about it, I read what [South Korean] Foreign Minister Kang [Kyung-wha] said about it. But you’ll have to ask them. I won’t speak for them.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparently lackluster reaction to the recent North Korean weapons tests is raising controversy in South Korea over his commitment to the U.S.-Korea alliance and the possibility of his accepting a weak nuclear deal with Pyongyang. What do you think?
It is not correct to say that President Trump does not care about short-range missiles. He cares very deeply, and he is committed to the alliance that the United States has with South Korea. What he is doing is creating, or allowing, the window for diplomacy to stay open. And I believe that he has done a good job in that regard. With the administration here - the Moon [Jae-in] administration - allowing the window to stay open, even though the previous missiles - I don’t want to talk about the ones this morning here, but the ones last week - violated UN sanctions, even though your government has characterized them as “ballistic missiles,” what President Trump is doing is extending the open hand to Kim Jong-un and not a closed fist.
Yet I think it’s important that the window for diplomacy remains open. I think we would all like to see the bigger issue of North Korea and the threat it poses to South Korea, the region, the United States and the world, really, that that issue be resolved diplomatically and not militarily. I think our president is doing all he can to give diplomacy a chance.
In regard to the missile launches this morning, I won’t share any intelligence information with you, other than to acknowledge that we know some missiles were launched.
Some Korean National Assembly lawmakers, especially from the opposition, are raising the issue of tactical nuclear weapons being redeployed in South Korea. What is your view on such a proposal?
On the tactical nuclear weapons issue, we have no plans to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons. No plans.
Based on what President Trump recently said, the U.S. government seems to want a significant increase in South Korea’s contribution to sharing the cost of the U.S. Forces Korea [USFK]. What are your thoughts about this?
On SMA [Special Measures Agreement], I’ve spoken about this publicly. I believe that a country that is as rich and powerful as Korea is - the world’s 12th-largest economy, a member of the G-20 [Group of 20] - I think a country like this can and should do more to offset the fiscal burden of [the USFK] to defend your country.
That said, we greatly appreciate all that Korea has done for us in terms of bases, Korean troops deployed in support of U.S. forces elsewhere and all of that. But, again, I believe that Korea can and should do more. How much more? That’s the subject of negotiations, and what we will be doing for the rest of this year is figuring out how much more.
The North has criticized the South’s joint military exercises with the United States and the introduction of F-35A fighter jets to South Korea from the United States, saying they violate the inter-Korean military agreement signed last September. Will this posture from Pyongyang affect the military relationship between the two countries?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve read what Kim Jong-un has said about the training opportunities we have and the F-35s. The F-35s is an alliance decision that both countries made - the United States and the Republic [of Korea] made together, and it enhances the ROK’s defensive capability, and helps it improve its capability in concert with our capabilities. So it’s an important alliance decision, and the ROK is proceeding along that course. With regard to training exercises, Gen. [Robert] Abrams [commander of the USFK] - I believe he would say - that his most pressing concern is readiness and these training events that we have with the ROK military are set to ensure that the readiness of the Combined Force is as high as possible, to meet any threat. I believe that the United States, working with the [ROK], and operationalized by Gen. Abrams working with Gen. Park Han-ki [chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff], they together have down-scoped - reduced in scope - the exercises, the training events, and have changed the scenarios […] the whole thing, in order to give diplomacy a chance. But also, importantly, to ensure that the readiness of the Combined Force is high. And I am convinced that he’s done it through these very creative training events that allow both forces - U.S. and ROK - to train, but will also give diplomacy a chance.
How would you address the concerns shared by many people in South Korea that Trump’s remarks and changes to the joint exercises send a wrong message to North Korea?
No, I think the president’s comments, the level and scope of the exercises, training events, should give North Korea hope that there is an opportunity for negotiations. And part of the process is that we hope that North Korea will return to negotiations, as Chairman Kim committed to at Panmunjom. I’m sure you’ve read [U.S. Secretary of State] Pompeo’s comments. He thinks that this will happen very soon. I don’t know what “very soon” means, I don’t have a time line for it, but he hopes that very soon it will happen. But whether it happens or not is up to North Korea. And so, today, at the end of July, we are trying to create space for the North to adhere to the agreements that it made. Chairman Kim committed to denuclearize in Singapore, and he committed to continuing working-level negotiations at Panmunjom. So let’s see how that goes. You know, in my previous job, I was a commander in 2017, when the environment here in Korea was entirely different than it is now. This is a much nicer environment today, and I believe we should encourage this sort of environment to have a more successful final, fully-verified denuclearization and all that entails for us - us being the ROK and the United States. And for what it entails - potentially - for North Korea and a brighter future and all that.
China and Russia recently staged a joint military provocation by intruding into the Kadiz and Korean airspace. What do you think was their intention? Were they taking advantage of the widening rift between Korea and Japan?
We, the United States, strongly support both of our allies - ROK’s and Japan’s responses to these provocations that happened in the body of water that separates Korea and Japan. So we support the actions of both the ROK and Japan on the incursion, the violation of that territorial airspace. And we remain in close coordination with our Korean and Japanese allies about this incident. I don’t know if it was intentional; I can’t read [Russia and China’s] minds. I don’t know if Russia and China intentionally did this in order to exploit the ideological issue between the ROK and Japan. I don’t know if that was their intent. But it just underscores how important it is that Korea and Japan work through their issues so that other countries won’t try to widen the gap between our allies, because this affects us as well. That’s why these historic and political issues, and economic now, issues between ROK and Japan, need to be resolved, so that issues like the Russian-Chinese incursions are not further divisive.
Amid the so-called trade war between the United States and China, South Korea remains in a uniquely difficult position. What are your thoughts?
In general, then I’ll talk about Huawei. In general, the United States isn’t asking South Korea to make a choice. We have a large, large trading relationship, economic relationship with China also. I think South Korea has already made the choice. You have an alliance with the United States, and we are committed to defending South Korea. China is not. China has committed to defending North Korea. So that’s important.
So that’s that in general. On the Huawei issue in particular, we are concerned about 5G and what 5G means to security, to way of life and to every aspect of society that 5G will touch when it is fully across this country, our country and other countries. And we are concerned about the security implications of companies that are beholden by national law to provide information when requested by the security entities of that nation. Huawei falls in that categorization because of the national intelligence law of China. So we are having those discussions with the leadership here. I won’t talk about those discussions. I view those as diplomatic discussions that are private. But in general, that is the concern the United States has. I’ve spoken about that publicly, and I will continue to do so.
The United States values our alliances deeply. And we have two in North Asia: the ROK and Japan. It is not a question of do we value one more than the other. We value both. And it pains us when we see our two allies at odds with each other to the degree that you are now.
But Korea is not unique in the idea that you painted at the beginning, the picture you painted at the beginning of your question. We have allies in Europe that border Russia, that feel the weight of pressure from Russia, just like Korea feels the weight of pressure from China. So you are not unique in that. It is the value, it is the alliance, the benefit of the alliance for the United States, in both cases, but in your case since we are talking about Korea, that protects you against that, I believe. That is why the alliance is so important to both of our countries.
China is again raising the deployment of Thaad to South Korea, which had fallen below the radar for a while. What are your thoughts about the Thaad issue?
The decision to keep Thaad is an alliance decision, and I think it is important. Since the Thaad was deployed, it has successfully managed to protect the citizens of southern South Korea, as well as U.S. forces and citizens who live in the southern half of South Korea.
As was stated in 2016 when we were contemplating this, through the deployment of it until today, the Thaad system poses zero threat, zero threat to China. It is one missile battery, one system. China has thousands of missiles that can reach South Korea. It is not designed to defend against a Chinese attack. It is there to defend against a North Korean attack, to protect the citizens of South Korea and the Americans down there, and our friends and allies to boot. China should not get a vote in how South Korea and the United States together decide how to defend a country that we are committed to defending. And so far, it’s fine. We are operating there, and the Thaad system is doing its job.
You recently visited to the May 18 cemetery in Gwangju. What was the purpose of your visit and what kind of message did you want to send to the South Korean people?
Last year, I went to Gwangju as part of my outreach as ambassador to meet governors and mayors, and also to experience the local cuisine and experience the country. Last year, there was heavy protest activity against my visit, which surprised me. I wasn’t expecting that. But I honored the protesters by not going to the cemetery, because that would have been the story. The story would have been, in my opinion, the protesters at the cemetery, which would have taken away from the hallowed ground that that cemetery is. So I decided not to create this news story about protesters at the cemetery.
This year, I went down to Gwangju principally to attend the FINA World Aquatics Championships, to observe the U.S. team there, to observe Katie Ledecky win her gold medal. But, while there I had unfinished business from last year. I wanted to go to the cemetery, to see it, and to lay a wreath at the cemetery. This year there were no protests. I do not know why. You will have to ask the protesters. Maybe they are accepting, maybe they had other things on their plate. I was deeply moved by how much love and care is provided to the grave sites of the 600 or so folks who are buried there. I consider that hallowed ground. It was one of the highlight experiences of my year in South Korea.
BY KIM SU-JEONG, LEE YU-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]