The courtyard hidden inside the American residence in Seoul has been a favourite place for Harry Harris to close the day — fortified with a tumbler of his beloved Tennessee whiskey in one hand, a Nicaraguan cigar in the other.
For two and a half years, the former four-star admiral had a front-row seat as ex-US president Donald Trump courted a nuclear-armed dictator and issued vitriolic broadsides against an ally of seven decades over the costs of the American security blanket.
It is not difficult to imagine that this inner sanctum — enclosed beneath an eave of intricate handmade tiles, warm polished wooden panels and complete with a gentle granite watercourse — was a welcome refuge.
“I might have a cigar or two out there, and a drink or three — you know what I mean,” Harris says in his slight drawl, an echo of his southern upbringing.
Silvering, though still athletic for his 64 years, Harris carries himself with the confident air of a military man with four decades of service behind him.
The compound, in US ownership since 1884, is located on a gently rising slope in the heart of the capital. The main, south-facing residence, Habib House, elegantly encompasses many core architectural features of a traditional Korean hanok. The roof curves away from the house, a wide eave flicking upwards above wooden arches and window frames.
Inside, huge beams and columns interlock along the edges of a high ceiling, accentuating the sense of space in the open-plan design. Among the many American contributions in a marriage of two cultures, Douglas fir, sourced from Oregon and Tennessee, was used for lumber.
The property was once within the adjacent Deoksu Palace grounds, home to Korean royals for centuries. The site, and in particular its smaller dwelling, the 138-year-old American Legation building, has long been considered a gem by the US foreign service.
It endured Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula during the first half of the 20th century, for a time flying the Swiss flag of neutrality. Later, it survived bombing and looting raids during the Korean war of the 1950s.
On the day of the FT’s visit, however, it is a domestic American threat — the violent riots at the US Capitol — that means the stars and stripes are flying at half-staff. Bucking expectations of a polite refusal to comment on the scenes back home, Harris is blunt but unapologetically patriotic.
“They were attacks on the Capitol, on our institutions of freedom and democracy — clearly appalling,” he says. “Some countries are perhaps doing a happy dance over what happened in Washington, but I think that we will emerge as a country stronger, and we will emerge as a democracy stronger, when all is said and done.”
As we circle the snow-dusted grounds on a wintry Seoul afternoon, Harris, with amused eyes, recounts how Philip Habib — the famous US envoy after whom the embassy has been renamed — intervened when dissident politician Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in Tokyo in 1973 by South Korea’s authoritarian ruler Park Chung-hee’s spooks.
Habib believed Kim, who would later become South Korea’s president, would be assassinated. Along with a small cast of CIA agents and diplomats, Habib chose to act — “despite US government policy not to interfere in domestic politics”, Harris observes. “He convinced the Koreans, almost at the last minute, to pull this thing back. He saved this guy’s life.”
Stepping across a stone terrace and into the residence, Harris offers another anecdote: beneath the same arched entranceway in 1979, “the story goes”, ambassador William H Gleysteen convinced President Jimmy Carter to abandon his plans to remove US forces from South Korea.
The US-South Korea alliance is often referred to as one “forged in blood”, a nod to the 40,000 US soldiers and millions of Koreans who perished in the Korean war. Still today, perhaps thanks to Gleysteen, nearly 30,000 US troops remain, a deterrent to Kim Jong Un.
During Trump’s presidency, the US swung from missile brinkmanship to three face-to-face meetings with the North Korean leader — “K J U”, to use Harris’s shorthand. “I used to read science fiction as a kid, I could not imagine something like that,” he says.
Asked about the orchestration of the June 2019 Trump-Kim meeting at the demilitarised zone separating the Koreas, Harris intimates that few officials in Seoul, if any, knew the meeting was coming.
“After [Trump] got to Japan and this was his next stop, his tweet cameout,” Harris says, referring to the 278-character invitation Trump sent to Kim from the G20 meeting in Osaka.
“Of course, we went into high order here at the embassy, the [South] Koreans went into high order, and I’m sure in North Korea too,” he says. “To go from nothing, to ‘let’s have a summit’ . . . it was pretty exciting, pretty heady.”
Harris has seen his share of tense situations; he notched 4,400 hours in patrol and reconnaissance flights, more than 400 of them in combat. So what lessons did he draw upon moving into diplomacy?
“I can sum up the fundamental lesson in two words: relationships matter,” he says. “In the international space . . . it’s relationships built up over time, or it’s relationships driven by necessity.”
On the former, he notes his personal ties forged over years with Jeong Kyeong-doo, the former South Korean defence minister, with whom he clashed while pursuing Trump’s demands that South Koreans quintuple the amount they pay for US defence. “We didn’t agree on everything . . . but we had that friendship built up over time.”
But Trump’s abrasive style — for instance, ridiculing South Koreans for being easier to get money out of than New York renters — handed his diplomats a particularly tough job in pressing American interests abroad.
Moving around the residence, it is clear the ambassador and his wife Bruni Bradley — also a former naval commander — have stamped their mark on Habib House. Outside, they have revitalised the gardens and planted trees for former ambassadors now deceased.
Hanging on the walls, the couple’s collection of vintage military and Olympic Games posters lends a touch of Americana, a counterpoint to the embassy’s collection of contemporary Korean art — including a stunning hanging installation of a hanbok (traditional attire) made by local artist Geum Key-sook.
Near a well-stocked bar, Harris and Bradley’s collection of Korean masks dominates one wall — expressions suspended in various states of ecstasy and agony. And we turn to how this career military man handled being the face of Trump’s America in Seoul.
Harris served in both Gulf wars and countless smaller operations in a career that saw him visit 131 countries. Later he was in charge of Guantánamo Bay detention camp before travelling with Barack Obama’s secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, representing the armed forces. I
n his final military role, he headed the US Pacific Command, responsible for hundreds of thousands of personnel and an area spanning half the earth’s surface.
Stepping out of the uniform was challenging after more than 40 years “doing things one way”. But he is unambiguous on the role of an “ambassador”, even for an unconventional president like Donald Trump, who shook many of America’s institutions to their core.
He quickly points to the etymology of the Korean translation: dae-sa: “It means ‘big messenger,’” Harris says. “Well, that is what an ambassador is, the personal envoy of the president of the United States . . . we deliverthe message.”
Harris attracted the most attention locally when he was targeted by a nasty corner of mainstream South Korean media over his part-Japanese background — having been born to a Japanese mother and American naval officer. The furore was of course exacerbated by Trump’s treatment of South Korea.
Harris, who tried to make light of the matter at the time, confides that he hadn’t expected to be so personally snared by historic tensions between Japan and South Korea. “Some of the race baiting, I was surprised by that.”
As Harris departed Seoul on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, he tweeted a picture of the residence courtyard. “Beautiful Habib House” topped a list of things he said he’ll miss about Korea.
Reflecting on Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, Harris insists that President Biden now “has the opportunity to begin his relationship with Kim Jong Un at a different place than any other president, ever . . . We’re in a better place than we’ve been, certainly in my time in uniform, I believe.”
Ultimately, Harris might be well judged on what didn’t happen during his tenure, rather than what did. Trump and Kim did not go to war. Nor did the US accept North Korea as a nuclear power. US troops were not pulled out of the peninsula. South Korea did not make good on serious threats to ditch its intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
It might be left to historians to extract whether — perhaps over whiskey and cigars — Harris, like Habib and Gleysteen before him, helped avert a much bigger crisis.
Edward White is the FT’s Seoul correspondent
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