US envoy to South Korea in stable condition after stabbing

By Daniele Pestilli on March 7, 2015
Mark W. Lippert speaking at a farewell reception event in 2014 (Image: Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, CC)

On Thursday, March 5th, U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark W. Lippert, was attacked by a knife-wielding man during a breakfast meeting at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul, BBC news reports. He is currently in stable conditions.

Mr. Lippert was attacked with a 25cm (10-inch) knife on his face and hands. Doctors repaired nerve damage near his left wrist and finger, and are healing the deep gash on his face with 80 stitches. He was first brought to the Kangbuk Samsung Hospital and then moved to Yonsei Severance Hospital for his treatment. According to Asahi News the stitches will be removed as soon as March 9 or 10, and he should be out of the hospital on the following day.

The attacker, identified as Kim Ki-jong, 55, is opposed to the joint American-South Korean military drills that are held annually, and which commenced on March 2nd this year, according to the South Korean police who was present at the scene. Kim was arrested on March 6th and “could face charges including attempted murder, assaulting a foreign envoy, obstruction, and violating a controversial law that bans praise or assistance for North Korea”, Asahi reports.

A self-professed nationalist who used to run a small activist group called Urimadang, Kim Ki-jung was already known to the authorities. According to CNN, Kim visited North Korea seven times between 1999 and 2007. In 2007, he set himself on fire in front of the presidential office in Seoul, asking for further investigations to a 1998 rape known as the “rape incident in Our Yard.” According to an article by the Korea Times, “Our Yard” was the name of the office where Kim worked, where four unidentified assailants raped a woman. In July 2010, he hurled concrete at Toshinori Shigeie, the Japanese envoy to South Korea and received a two-year suspended jail term. Last year, he was fined for slapping a man during a lecture by the Seoul mayor.

South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, who is currently on a tour of the Middle East, condemned the attack:

This incident is not only a physical attack on the U.S. ambassador, but an attack on the South Korea-U.S. alliance and it can never be tolerated.

Asahi News writes that North Korea's state-controlled media condoned the attack as “knife slashes of justice” as well as “a deserved punishment on war maniac U.S.” Pyongyang describes the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills as a preamble to invasion.

An article in the New York Times confirmed that Mr. Lippert was relying on a lone, unarmed South Korean police bodyguard, raising questions about whether security had been too lax. The U.S. does not typically dispatch its own security personnel in South Korea as it is not considered to be a threatening place for its envoys. According to the same article, “Kim Ki-jong, was allowed into the meeting although he was not on the list of confirmed invitees.”

A graduate of Stanford University and expert on Asia policy, Mark Lippert became U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2014 after spending years working for President Barack Obama on the National Security Council and at the Defense Department. He also served in the Navy and was recognized for his service in Iraq.

Anti-American sentiment is not something new in South Korea. A minority of nationalists view the United States as a colonial power that unjustly hampers North-South Korean reunification via the U.S. troops’ presence and military drills, which have taken place yearly following the Korean War in the mid 1950s. The Korean daily, Hankyoreh, as well as other experts have expressed concern that this attack on a U.S. ambassador may lead to more “witch hunting of leftists in South Korea”.