Attack on US ambassador to South Korea spotlights pro-North radicalism

North Korea's state media praised the knife attack and said it showed anti-US sentiment in South Korea. Ambassador Mark Lippert is recovering after surgery on his face and hand. 

Kim Ju-sung, Yonhap/AP
US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert places his right hand on his face as he leaves a lecture hall for a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 5, 2015 after being attacked by a man with a knife.

A knife-wielding South Korean man who attacked US Ambassador Mark Lippert today is a well-known nationalist who previously threw a chunk of concrete at the Japanese ambassador and once tried erect a memorial to former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Seoul. 

At a breakfast seminar in the South Korean capital, Kim Ki-jong attacked Mr. Lippert with a wooden-handled fruit knife while calling for the unification of North and South Korea. The attack on the ambassador, a rarity in South Korea, a US military ally, took place against the backdrop of annual military exercises between the two nations. 

North Korea stoutly opposes the joint exercises. It launched two small missiles into the ocean earlier this week in apparent displeasure. In a statement it released via state media, North Korea hailed the assault on the ambassador, calling it “a knife attack of justice,” according to CNN, and saying that it reflected "anti-US sentiments."

South Korean president Park Geun-hye countered that the "incident is not only a physical attack on the US ambassador, but an attack on the South Korea-US alliance and it can never be tolerated."

At the breakfast event, which was hosted by the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, Mr. Kim approached Lippert's table and the two men struggled. Kim slashed the ambassador's face and hand. He shouted "I carried out an act of terror" as he was pinned to the floor by onlookers. 

After extensive stitches the ambassador tweeted that he was recuperating and “will be back ASAP." He added in Korean, “Let's work together.” 

The attacker is known by South Korean security as part of a group of Korean nationalists opposed to an American presence in the South, according to Yonhap news agency. More than 10 years ago when families from North and South began reconciliation meetings, the group organized anti-US protests in Seoul. Their interests were seen as similar to those of North Korea, which advocates for the unification of the Korean peninsula under the rule of the Kim family dynasty – with the departure of the Americans a first step.

Yet protests and civic activism in the South began to wane after the North conducted a nuclear test in 2006, and after it was revealed that the South was paying large amounts of cash for diplomacy with the North with often no visible reciprocation. Civic protests against the US have also slowed as many South Koreans feel US forces are still needed. The US maintains some 29,000 troops in the country.

Reuters reports today that Lippert, a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, is known “for his open, informal style …and can often be seen walking his basset hound, Grigsby, in Seoul. His wife recently gave birth to a son, who was given a Korean middle name.”

Reuters writes about the attacker that:

Kim is a member of the group that supports Korean unification that hosted the event, police said. He has also staged one-man protests against Japan over disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, and, according to his blog, he led a protest outside a U.S. army base in Seoul last November.

"The guy comes in ... He yells something, goes up to the ambassador and slashes him in the face," witness Michael Lammbrau of the Arirang Institute think-tank.

Citing South Korean intelligence agencies, Yonhap said the attacker had reportedly visited North Korea six times and once set himself on fire in front of the president’s office: 

The suspect shouted his opposition to the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises that started Monday as he was being taken into a police car, authorities said. The exercises are part of Seoul and Washington's efforts to better deter threats from North Korea. ...

On Tuesday, Kim wrote a post that condemned the military drills between South Korea and the U.S., calling it "the reason why the reunion between family members (separated by the 1950-53 Korean War) couldn't take place."

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