The threat of nuclear war has hung over the peninsula for years – but it seems the US ambassador’s moustache has got South Koreans bristling with anger.
Harry Harris, a former navy admiral who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American navy officer, has been accused of insulting his hosts by growing the controversial adornment.
His facial hair reminds many of the days of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, during which all eight Japanese governors-general sported moustaches.
Tokyo’s rule over the Korean peninsula is a continuing source of resentment in South Korea, whose relations with its neighbour were damaged last year amid disputes over their wartime history.
During a protest outside the US Embassy in December, activists plucked the moustache hairs from posters of the ambassador’s face.
Talking to reporters, Mr Harris mentioned the public comments about his heritage and the mockery of his moustache – despite many famous Korean historical figures sporting similar facial hair.
“My moustache, for some reason, has become a point of some fascination here,” he said.
“I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the nations.
“But I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea – I am the American ambassador to Korea.”
In a December interview with the Korea Times, Mr Harris said he grew the moustache to mark his change in role.
“I wanted to make a break between my life as a military officer and my new life as a diplomat,” he said.
“I tried to get taller but I couldn’t grow any taller, and so I tried to get younger but I couldn’t get younger. But I could grow a moustache so I did that.”
Mr Harris has also been criticised by senior government members in Seoul for suggesting the country should consult with Washington about reopening tourism with North Korea.
He suggested it would be better for South Korea to run any plans to engage with North Korea through a joint working group established with the US to avoid any “misunderstandings” that could trigger sanctions.
However a Seoul official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s very inappropriate for the ambassador to make such a mention in the media over remarks by the president of the host nation.”
A spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, declined to comment specifically on Mr Harris’s remarks but said “our policy with regard to North Korea comes under our sovereignty”.