Acceptance Speech for Distinguished Public Service Award at 12th Annual PPALM Meeting

Harry Harris
U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Pan-Pacific American Leaders and Mentors (PPALM)
October 13, 2019


Let’s give it up one more time for “Ooh-La-La”!

Thank you, Tony, for that very generous introduction. Most speakers use the brief moments that they are being introduced as the final opportunity to prepare themselves to face their audience — one last prayer, perhaps. Not me.

Instead, I listen very carefully to how I’m introduced.

You see, Benjamin Franklin once concluded an introduction of our second President, John Adams, by saying Adams was … “…always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes absolutely out of his mind.”

So, I’m always worried that if I don’t pay close attention, I’ll take the podium after an introduction like that, and the first words out of my mouth will be, … “Thanks, Tony, for that very generous introduction.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m honored to be here tonight, and I’d like to thank the Pan-Pacific American Leaders and Mentors (PPALM) for organizing this wonderful event. It’s truly a pleasure to be in the company of so many friends, mentors and leaders, who are examples to us all. One of my own personal mentors, the distinguished General Ric Shinseki and his wife, Patty, joins us here tonight, as does Judge Evan Wallach and his wife, Dr. Katherine Tobin, and General Tony Tagubu and his wife Debbie, and so many others.

It’s no exaggeration nor secret that Tony intervened in my career at a critical juncture and for that I can’t thank him enough.
Every generation stands on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them, and I can say without exaggeration… that I am on this stage tonight as a Japanese American, a retired U.S. Navy Admiral, and now U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, because of mentors and organizations like PPALM that have devoted themselves to creating opportunities and pathways, where previously there were none.

Now I know there are other, far more exemplary honorees being recognized tonight for their service and patriotism. So like any mentor should, I’ll try to keep my remarks brief and get out of the way for that next generation to follow.

Since I last saw many of you, my wife Bruni and I moved to Korea and we now call Seoul home. We consider ourselves especially lucky to take up residence at “Habib House” – a magnificent traditional Korean Hanok commissioned by former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Phillip Habib. Many of you here have probably never heard of Ambassador Habib until now. Well, get ready. Next year, we’ll celebrate the centenary of his birth, and it’s going to be a big deal, because he was a truly remarkable American and diplomat, so much so that Warren Zevon even wrote a song about him titled “The Envoy.” “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money” is more the story of my life, but I digress. Phillip Habib served in Korea from 1971-1974, during an eventful, historically significant, year for the Republic.

On August 8, 1973, a young opposition leader was abducted and on the verge of losing his life. Together with a diplomat in Washington named Donald Ranard, Ambassador Habib intervened decisively to save him. And as we often say, the rest is history. The young man they saved was Kim Dae Jung. You may have heard of him. “DJ” went on to be the President of the Republic of Korea, ushered in the era of Sunshine Diplomacy with North Korea, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 – the only Korean laureate, to date.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you this. To answer that, before I move on, let me tell you a little more about Phillip Habib. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1920, to first generation Lebanese-American parents. His father ran a grocery store and he grew up Maronite Christian in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Through his parents and neighbors, he learned the hard lessons of ethnic and religious persecution, and saw in practice the importance of modesty and hard work. All around him he witnessed the benefits of tolerance and diversity which guided him throughout his diplomatic career, and should guide us all, as Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Asian-Americans …and just plain Americans.

As an American diplomat, Ambassador Habib was driven by his convictions for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Personal politics aside, in crisis, with lives on the line, he didn’t waver. He didn’t wait for the safe option or look for the easy way out. He ran to the sound of the guns.

Today, as the current U.S. Ambassador to the ROK, I look back on Ambassador Habib’s decisions and actions with admiration and awe…and I ask myself if I would have had the courage to do the same thing? And I can only hope that I would.

I didn’t have a chance to meet Ambassador Habib, but his life reflects what is truly great about America. His life speaks to the importance of tolerance and diversity, and reminds us all that there will be times in our lives when we have to act decisively, guided by the integrity and values that have long been instilled in us by parents, teachers, mentors, and friends.

Ambassador Habib’s life and legacy also speaks to the intrinsic strength, honor, pride, and perseverance that the many cultures resident in the immigrant experience, have added to our Nation. This is a powerful message and it speaks to us all — no matter our gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

Asian Americans hold no monopoly on dreams and aspirations. After all, we all just want to be successful on our merits … and not be held back by our genetics.

This message has long resonated with me as a Japanese American. I am not the first Asian-American Flag Officer in our Navy …thank God we got that right many years ago, nor am I the first Asian-American ambassador. Today, it is not unusual to see an Asian American Flag or General Officer. After all, we have over 110,000 men and women of Asian descent in our military, and many ambassadors and diplomats of Asian descent as well. In 1952, Colonel Young-Oak Kim – who served with the 442nd — became the first officer from an ethnic minority to command a regular U.S. combat battalion in war. And in 1999, only 47 years later, my good friend and mentor General Ric Shinseki became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. All of us owe this in no small measure to each pathfinder who has gone before us … from whom we have drawn much of our strength.
A successful career in the military, and now the diplomatic corps is not possible without the influence of family growing up, support of family while you’re deployed or in combat, and the support of friends, shipmates, and battle buddies throughout.

My father and 4 of his brothers all served in World War II – enlisted men in the Army and Navy … in the Pacific and European theaters. Growing up, listening to their stories … they taught me the importance of serving our Nation.

My mother had a different story. She’s Nihonjin. From Kobe. She lost her home…her school…many of her family and friends in air raids in the same war that her future husband was fighting.

From my mother, I learned about giri (duty).

Once settled in America, she adapted with grace and became an American citizen in 1974. She told me that her proudest accomplishments were jury duty and voting. Her sense of duty was powerful.

So, when I turned 18, the decision to serve was easy. The Navy offered the same allure for me that it did for my father — service, adventure, education, good pay…and I jumped at it. I joined at the height of the Cold War and saw its end. I served at the beginning of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and though I’ve changed uniforms, I’ve still got my eye on what’s going on over there. I saw the start of our rebalance to the Pacific, and now as a diplomat, I get to work to further strengthen our alliance with the Republic of Korea, and help maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the Indo-Pacific.

The United States is a Pacific nation. Always has been; always will be. America’s fate is inexorably linked with this region. This reality has guided more than six decades of U.S. military presence and partnership in the Pacific — a defense posture which, along with our trading relations and diplomatic ties, helped usher in an unprecedented era of security and prosperity in the latter half of the 20th century.

In this, the second decade of the 21st century, the U.S. recognizes that our prosperity and security depend even more on the Asia-Pacific, especially our network of alliances and partnerships there. And I’m happy to report, that the enduring alliance I am charged with nurturing and strengthening, is ironclad. The U.S.-ROK Alliance is dynamic, and we’ve built a multi-dimensional partnership reinforced by shared values, shared concerns, and economic interests, and underpinned by deep people-to-people ties. Forged in the crucible of war and hardened by blood spilled together, it has lasted generations and will continue to thrive for generations to come … as long as we, together, nurture it, resource it, and remain committed to it.

The extraordinary, historic events between the United States and the DPRK over the last year and a half have placed our nations and our Alliance in a position for even greater potential outcomes in the future. Over the decades since the Korean War ended, there have been many overtures to bring peace to the peninsula, but unfortunately, in the end, they all failed. Enter Presidents Trump and Moon, and we find ourselves in a far different, more optimistic place in 2019.

The United States will play an even larger role throughout the Indo-Pacific region for decades to come and strengthening our alliances in the region will be critical to our success.

A former naval officer … and President … John F. Kennedy, once said, “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” That’s a powerful statement, and one that I keep in the front of my mind as I learn about cultural and societal norms that differ from my own, even as I advocate for gender equality, religious freedom, and the rights of the LGBT-Q community– no matter what uniform or hat I’m wearing.

Imagine where our country would be if we had not overcome many of the prejudices on display during World War II.

Where would we be without the course correction provided by the civil rights movement of mid-20th century? Where would we be without the legacy of those who fought for what was right while they themselves were being wronged?

While we can surely be grateful for where we are along our American journey, we must also accept our responsibility to maintain that course. When Dr. Benjamin Mays delivered the eulogy at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral, he said that Dr. King’s unfinished work on earth must truly be our own. Ladies and Gentleman, that work falls on each of us here today.

It’s our “giri” … our duty … our obligation … and in Korean, its our “sah-myung” or commission….to remember the legacy of our heroes … be they the Founding Fathers who revolted against the oppression of the Crown … the Abolitionists who rejected slavery … the Nisei who volunteered to fight in World War II … or those who risked their lives for a democratic Korea…or our young men and women who do our nation proud in Iraq and Afghanistan…at sea and in the air…today.

Ladies and gentlemen, America is the country she is because of her heroes past and present. America is the country she is because of young men and women who are willing to forego wearing a business suit, forego strolling down easy street, and forego living the good life…to wear instead the cloth of the Nation … to travel instead along an uncertain road fraught with peril…to live instead a life on the ragged edge of danger. To live lives that matter on a fundamental level.

Now, I’m not a preacher-man…but there is a passage in the Good Book which defines for me the spirit that lives in each and every citizen who has ever chosen to wear the Cloth of the Nation.

One day God was searching for the right man –a man with the right stuff, if you will. A man to embark on a dangerous mission and go into a dangerous land.

“Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?”

And the prophet responded… “Here am I Lord…send me.”

Here am I… send me. Powerful words. When our Nation was attacked 18 years ago, just as she was nearly 78 years ago at Pearl Harbor, Lady Liberty called out in her pain and anguish… “Whom shall I send? … Who shall go for me?…”

And everywhere…Soldiers … Sailors … Airmen … Marines… Coast Guardsmen … and Diplomats (!) called out…


From the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond, America’s sons and daughters … native-born and immigrants alike …answered that clarion call … and they continue to answer that call today in the uniform of a sailor, soldier, airman, Marine…and diplomat.

This is who we are. This is our heritage. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, may God bless this land of liberty we call America.