SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has said privately that he does not plan to stay on beyond the November U.S. presidential election, regardless of whether President Donald Trump wins another term, five sources told Reuters.
Harris, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who started in Seoul in 2018 after Trump appointed him, has expressed increasing frustration with the tensions and drama of his tenure, the sources said, all speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
“He’s been wanting to stay only until November rather than serving in the second term even if Trump wins it,” one source with direct knowledge of the issue said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul did not directly address Harris’ plans, but said the ambassador “remains energized to continue to serve the United States.”
“His commitment to strengthening the U.S.-ROK alliance through active engagement with government interlocutors, the wonderful people, and the independent media in the Republic of Korea remains ironclad,” the spokesman said.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Harris’ predecessors each served about three years and generally enjoyed good personal rapport with South Koreans. But his time in Seoul has been marked by increasing acrimony between the two longtime allies.
The U.S. ambassador has become the public face of what many South Koreans see as overbearing policies embraced by the Trump administration in the name of “America First.”
Although polls show wide South Korean support for the alliance in general, people there have balked at Trump’s demands that Seoul pay billions of dollars more for a U.S. troop presence in the country.
The military cost-sharing agreement lapsed in December, and the failure to strike a new deal has led to more than 4,000 South Korean workers being put on unpaid leave.
In October a group of South Korean students climbed over a wall into the grounds of the ambassador’s residence in Seoul to protest against the U.S. troop presence in the country, sparking complaints from the State Department over lax security by South Korean police.
In December protesters destroyed portraits of Harris during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy as they chanted “Harris out! We are not a U.S. colony! We are not an ATM machine!”
Friction also developed over U.S. insistence that South Korea limit its engagement with North Korea until Trump had made progress in denuclearisation talks.
And Seoul’s foreign ministry summoned Harris in August after U.S. officials expressed disappointment over its decision to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
“He would’ve never imagined something like that, because both countries, as allies, would usually put on a nice face once you get out of the meeting room even if there’s a disagreement,” a second source said of Harris’ reaction to the foreign ministry’s public disclosure of the acrimonious meeting.
Before being named ambassador, Harris was an admiral leading U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command.
It is unclear whether Harris has already tendered his resignation, but as part of his retirement plans he has built a house in Colorado, three sources said.
Besides the politics, Harris also was the target of racially charged acrimony over his Japanese heritage.
Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father, Harris faced increasingly personal attacks – even from high-level South Korean officials – as a simmering historic dispute between Seoul and Tokyo erupted again last year.
Some South Koreans mocked Harris’ moustache by likening it to those worn by the Japanese colonial leaders who ruled Korea from 1910-45.
Harris said in January that he was aware that his moustache had become “a point of some fascination here” but he was the American ambassador to Korea, “not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea.”
The first source said that Harris never complained about the pressures of the job, but that it had become clear some of the personal attention was weighing on him.
“He wouldn’t openly say he’s stressed out or like ‘life is hard’ – he’s a four-star admiral and has been through a lot,” the source said.
“But no one likes to deal with people who are ungrateful for your hard work, and throwing racist slurs isn’t the right way to treat an ally who has such deep ties and fondness for your country,” the source added.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle