U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris’ concern about the government’s plan to work on inter-Korean cooperation aroused the emotions of Koreans during an international press conference on Jan. 16. The foreign press reported that Ambassador Harris, speaking about the individual tours of North Korea that the government has in the works, said that “in order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions ... it’s better to run this through the working group [of Americans and Koreans].” The foreign media also wrote that Harris shared his view that although visits to North Korea are allowed under the sanctions currently in place against the country, items in tour group luggage may be subject to sanctions. Speaking en route to North Korea, Harris also asked whether the tours travel through the Demilitarized Zone, and if so, that would mean the U.N. Command is involved and there is a question of how to get back. On Jan. 17, Cheongwadae officials said that “it is very inappropriate for an ambassador to mention a comment made by the president of the host country publicly to the press.” This sent a strong warning with regard to the American ambassador’s comments which may even be interpreted as an infringement on the sovereignty of a host nation.
There are many different problems with Ambassador Harris’s comments. The concern that tourist luggage will violate sanctions is something that should apply to all travelers to North Korea, not just travelers from South Korea. However, plenty of tourists travel to and from North Korea without any problems. The remarks arouse suspicion that Ambassador Harris may, on some off chance, be against travel to North Korea itself, or that he considers all visitors to North Korea to be potentially suspect with regard to violating sanctions. In addition, the ambassador’s mention of the United Nations Command and the DMZ in connection with route to North Korea appears to suggest that people should stop trying to go through the DMZ because the U.N. Command would never allow it. Because the power to regulate passage through the DMZ was a power given to the U.N. Command for the militaristic purpose of enforcing the cease-fire, the U.N. Command does not have the authority to block nonmilitary passage.
Nonetheless, the U.N. Command has asserted its authority to regulate passage through the DMZ and blocked entry for government events promoting inter-Korean cooperation time and time again. It is impossible to believe that Ambassador Harris does not know his remarks have been criticized as an abuse of power that infringes on South Korean sovereignty, and yet he still chooses to bring up the U.N. Command, and even tries to make people feel bad about attempting to hold South Korea in check.
Although an ambassador must be the bridge that improves the relationship between his own country and the host country, taking all positions and views into consideration, Ambassador Harris is causing trouble with his forceful words and behavior that appear to disregarding the circumstances of the host country. Because he is reiterating his controversial remarks without any self-awareness, we fear that he could even ruin the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The government promotion of tourism to North Korea is a desperate measure that was taken in response to the longstanding stalemate that exists in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. As a Unification Ministry official explained, we hope that the United States’ North Korean policy carefully keeps the sovereign rights of the Republic of Korea in mind.