South Korea

Sending admiral to South Korea as US ambassador could ‘complicate’ military chain of command, ex-Pentagon official says

Harry Harris is reported to be the choice to be the next American envoy to Seoul, a post that has been vacant since US President Donald Trump took office

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 9:19pm

The choice of Admiral Harry Harris to fill the long-vacant US ambassadorship to South Korea has drawn split opinions among experts in Washington, with a former Pentagon official worrying that it could cause problems within the military chain of command in Seoul and others confident that Harris, if nominated, could make the transition from a military to civilian role in a global hot spot.

Abraham Denmark, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia in US President Barack Obama’s administration, told the South China Morning Post that installing Harris, a four-star admiral who is outgoing commander of US forces in the Pacific, as the top civilian diplomat in Seoul could “potentially complicate” his relations with the commander of US forces in South Korea and the US defence secretary. 

On US military issues regarding Seoul, the top authorities are the commander of American forces in South Korea and the US secretary of defence secretary, Denmark said.

“Appointing a retired four-star admiral will significantly complicate those dynamics, even if all [three] Americans go in with the best of intentions,” Denmark said. 

The current commander of US forces in South Korea is General Vincent Brooks, who also holds four stars. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis retired from the US Marine Corps as a four-star general when he assumed his current role. 

“There is precedent that the relationship between a retired four-star general and an active-duty four-star general could grow complex,” Denmark added.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Harris would also be required to retire from the Navy before taking the ambassador post.

In February, Harris was nominated to become the US ambassador to Australia, and was in Washington last week for Senate confirmation hearings for that job when US President Donald Trump changed his mind about Harris’s destination as US envoy. 

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A spokesman at the president's National Security Council declined to comment on the status of Harris's possible nomination.

The pending nomination for the South Korean post comes as aides to Trump have hurried to prepare a proposed summit meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in May or early June. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held their historic inter-Korean meeting on Thursday. 

Trump said on Friday at the White House that “two or three” sites and “three or four” dates have been under consideration for his meeting with Kim. 

Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser to former US Vice President Joe Biden, told the Post that Harris was “very talented” and a “genuine public servant”. 

“He will sort out the shift from military to civilian quite effectively if he is confirmed,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan and Harris both worked for former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as foreign policy adviser and military adviser, respectively.

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In late January, the White House dropped plans to nominate Victor Cha, a former member of the Bush administration’s National Security Council, for the Seoul ambassadorship because he expressed concerns about the idea of a limited military strike on North Korea. 

If any US action against Pyongyang were to be considered, the American line of authority on military affairs in Seoul would play a decisive role. Several observers were optimistic about Harris’s ability to transition from a military to civilian role. 

While diplomatic efforts are underway to achieve the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula, the US has not ruled out military options, including the “bloody nose” strategy of a preventive strike on North Korea. Trump has repeatedly said that “all options are on the table”. 

Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the CIA, said Harris’s expected nomination demonstrated that North Korea was one of the Trump administration’s highest priorities. 

Terry, now a Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that Harris was a “good choice” for  ambassador. “He knows North Korea and the region very well,” Terry said. “It’s a gain for South Korea.” 

However, “I feel bad for [our] Australian friends,” Terry added. “They are losing a good person to be the next US ambassador, and that is the downside.”

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The US State Department played down any negative impact on the relations with its Australian ally by the ambassadorship switch. 

“Our relationship with Australia is and remains steadfast,” a State Department official told the Post in an email. “Relations and communications between US and Australia’s most senior officials are as good as ever, and will remain so.” 

The US has been without a permanent ambassador to Australia since September 2016.

Reuters reported on April 24 that Mike Pompeo, who was confirmed as US secretary of state on Thursday, chose Harris to fill the envoy post in Seoul, which has been vacant for more than a year, as a part of effort to prepare for the Trump-Kim summit meeting.