US appoints long-awaited ambassador to South Korea

Harris was a hawkish commander, once earmarked for the post of ambassador to Australia, and a strong supporter of joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces
AFP

Washington (AFP) – The United States filled one of the most glaring holes in its diplomatic roster on Thursday, confirming the appointment of a new ambassador to key ally South Korea.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve Admiral Harry Harris, the outgoing head of US Pacific Command and a veteran Asia hand, to head the US mission in Seoul.

The post has been vacant since President Donald Trump took office on January 20 last year, even as Washington embarks on delicate nuclear disarmament negotiations with neighboring North Korea.

Harris was a hawkish commander, once earmarked for the post of ambassador to Australia, and a strong supporter of joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces.

Trump, who met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un at a summit this month to defuse tensions, has ordered these “provocative” drills stopped and dismissed them as expensive “war games.”

Harris, keen to get through his confirmation process, has fallen into line, telling senators: “The whole landscape has shifted and I believe that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause.”

Trump’s administration was quick to dismiss the ambassadors who served under the former Barack Obama administration, seeking new voices to promote carry his “America First” policy.

But the incoming leader’s first secretary of state, former oil executive Rex Tillerson, clashed with the White House over nominees and the administration struggled to fill posts.

The State Department was criticized for failing to appoint experienced experts to key positions at a time of intense activity. 

Tillerson has now been replaced by former CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who has promised to bring some “swagger” back to US diplomacy and now the pace of appointments has picked up.

Harris is 61 years old and was born in Yokosuka, Japan to a US sailor father and a Japanese mother. He has held several senior commands, including those of the US Sixth Fleet and Pacific Fleet.

He also commanded Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which included responsibility for the prison camp housing war on terror detainees.

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