'Cheap applause': Real root of knife attack on US ambassador to S. Korea?

Authorities are tracking ties between Pyongyang and Kim Ki-Jong, the man who slashed US ambassador Mark Lippert last week and has visited North Korea at least six times. But are the real causes of attack closer to home? 

Ahn Young-joon
A Buddhist monk bows toward the U.S. embassy during a rally demanding quick recovery of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 6, 2015. A knife attack on Thursday that injured Lippert is the latest act of political violence in a deeply divided country where some protesters portray their causes as matters of life and death. The placards read: "A rally demanding quick recovery of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert."

A day after American Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was slashed by a Korean nationalist wielding a fruit knife, police in Seoul announced an intriguing line of investigation: Was North Korea behind the attack?

The question was also provocative: There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to investigate possible fingerprints across the misty border in the closed Hermit Kingdom, now led by youthful Kim Jong-un. 

The attacker, Kim Ki-jong, is a well-known nationalist who has been to North Korea at least six times and revered former Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Was Kim Ki-jong asked by agents of Pyongyang to “conduct an ideologically framed patriotic duty,” as a US based expert asks? 

North Korea never formally renounced the use of violence after the war; it has conducted covert operations inside South Korea for 40 years and last week it denounced the annual US-ROK military exercises now under way in the South.This week the country applauded the knife attack.

But in South Korea, there are also potent causes for an attack on Lippert, stemming from the fiery dynamics playing out now in East Asia, experts say. They involve interplay between the US, Japan, and South Korea, and center on new Japanese revisions and denials about Japan's exploitation of Korean comfort women during World War II. 

The abuse of the women – used as prostitutes by Japanese soldiers – took place 70 years ago. But it is a defining emotional issue today in South Korea. President Park Gyun-hye has used Japan’s position on comfort women as a populist rallying point, to great effect.

The issue has become so emotional that, with the attack on Lippert, “it has now come back to bite Mrs. Park, who has been encouraging these ultra-nationalist groups and waves of anti-Japanese sentiments,” argues Alexandre Mansurov, a former US intelligence expert on the Koreas who was in Seoul on the morning of the attack.

 “A lot of it started with the speech [on Feb. 27] by [US Undersecretary of State Wendy] Sherman.” 

Japan’s new position on comfort women has been engineered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It asserts that Korean women essentially agreed to be prostitutes for Japanese soldiers and were not rounded up or coerced into captivity. The position is part of Mr. Abe’s program to end Japan’s war guilt and help it be an assertive and normal nation in East Asia.

(No leading US or Korean scholars agree with the Japanese prime minister’s historical views on comfort women, despite a recent Japanese effort to get the publisher McGraw-Hill in the US to revise its high school history textbooks on the subject.) 

The official US position on comfort women was articulated plainly by President Barack Obama in Seoul a year ago, when he called the treatment of the women a "terrible and egregious" violation of human rights. The US is in agreement with South Korea, as a State Department spokeswoman reiterated this January. 

Yet the plot, if there is one, thickened on Feb. 27 when Secretary Sherman, in a major address on Northeast Asia at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, appeared to cajole the leaders of both China and South Korea not to use history as a divisive lever and for populist gain: 

There can be no question that the world would be safer, richer, and more stable if the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea were consistently pulling in the same direction, and that’s definitely what the majority of the people in the region want. Of course, nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.

 In South Korea this paragraph – part of a 3,700-word speech – became the cause of a firestorm. The line about "cheap applause" was widely seen as a put-down. Media and members of the South Korean parliament asked for Ms. Sherman to be fired and demanded to know why there was no apparent US censure of Japan for its denials. A broader hue and cry questioned, among other things, if the US position on the women had changed. (US officials quickly said it had not.) 

But pieces like this one – “Outrageous Blame: Who is really misusing history,” in Business Korea – offer the flavor of response in the South, right down to assuming that the US position had changed: 

The Obama administration’s change of stance, to put pressure not on Japan but Korea, is no viable option. It would fuel the anti-U.S. opinion in Korea while giving wings to Japan’s distortion of history and nationalism.

Then came a speech by President Park. On March 1, at a ceremony marking the 1919 Korean uprising against Japan’s 35 years of colonial occupation, Ms. Park pushed further, as reported in The New York Times, saying that Japan and its leader needed: 

"courage and honesty” to admit to its historical wrongdoings against Koreans and other Asians, including its enslavement of Korean women in military brothels during World War II.“As Germany and France overcame conflict and mutual enmity and became leaders in building a new Europe, it is time for South Korea and Japan to write a new history together,” Ms. Park said in a nationally televised speech. “But despite their geographical proximity, the two nations could not get close in heart because of tensions surrounding historical issues."

All along, the US was being accused of tacitly siding with Japan. By Wednesday, a set of protesters from various nationalist groups began to protest loudly in front of the US embassy, according to Mr. Mansurov and Korean media. 

The number of anti-US protesters in recent years has declined dramatically from the early 2000s when tens of thousands took to the streets. Whether Kim Ki-jong was one of the protesters at the embassy will be a question for the Korean authorities. His attack on Lippert took place directly across from the American mission on Thursday. 

This is not Kim’s first ambassadorial assault. In 2010 he threw a chunk of concrete at the Japanese ambassador to the South. He is well known to police for a variety of high-profile incidents, including an effort once to self-immolate, and he is in and out of the courts.

In the early 2000s, Kim was interviewed by a prominent Korean women's college about Woori Madang, the traditionalist organization he had helped run, one that promoted Korean dress, language, arts, and activities. He feared losing funding for the group, saying, "What hurts me the most is when I hear people who had once been part of our organization say that Woori-madang is already nonexistent, that it hasn't survived the harsh realities of the world. They even say this with me here, firm on my feet, determined to keep it alive no matter what." 

Kim this week told reporters as he was being transported in handcuffs that he was not acting at the orders of Pyongyang, saying this was “ridiculous.” For Mansurov, the moment of Kim Ki-jong’s attack is aided by an atmosphere in Korea of emotional anger. “I think everyone wants to move past this, and everyone is in damage control,” he says. “But it creates problem moments when South Korea accuses the US of siding with Japan.” 

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