Slashing of Envoy Shocks U.S. and South Korea, Draws Praise from North Korea

korea-lippert-mar2015.jpg U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert holds his face following a knife attack in Seoul, March 5, 2015
AFP/The Asia Economy Daily

The United States and South Korea deplored the slashing Thursday of the U.S. envoy to Seoul, a surprise knife attack by an angry nationalist that North Korea swiftly praised as "righteous punishment."

Ambassador Mark Lippert tweeted that he was "doing well and in great spirits" in a Seoul hospital after receiving 80 stitches to seal a deep gash on his right cheek. The activist who attacked Lippert at a breakfast speech in central Seoul denounced annual U.S.-South Korean  military exercises and called for reunification of the Korean peninsula.

The alleged assailant, Kim Ki-jong, 55, slashed Lippert on the face and wrist with a 10-inch fruit knife, and was detained immediately by police, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Kim had shouted his opposition to the annual U.S.-South Korean Key Resolve and Foal  Eagle military exercises that started Monday, Yonhap added.

A person who witnessed the attack at the Sejong Cultural Center in Seoul told RFA's Korean Service that Kim "just placed a hand out and suddenly and like an arrow jumped at the ambassador. It just took between 1-2 seconds."

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf issued a statement saying "the U.S.-ROK alliance is strong; we will not be deterred by senseless acts of violence."

"The suspect is in custody and U.S. law enforcement is coordinating closely with the Korean National Police who have the lead on the investigation into the assault. We cannot speculate on a motive at this time," Harf added.

The Agence France Press news agency quoted Secretary of State John Kerry as telling reporters during a visit to Saudi Arabia that "the United States of America will never be intimidated or deterred by threat or by anybody who harms any American diplomat."

‘Shower of justice’

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said such an attack on a diplomat "cannot be tolerated for any reason, and particularly is considered serious because it has been perpetrated against the United States ambassador, our most important ally."

Rival North Korea, which has a small but fervent and occasionally violent core of supporters in South Korea, issued a commentary through its state-run Korean Central News Agency calling the assault "deserved punishment for warmonger United States" and praising the assailant for delivering “a knife-attack shower of justice” to Lippert.

Chung Nam-sik, medical director of Yonsei University hospital said Lippert, a 42-year-old veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, has sustained cuts to his right cheekbone.

"Fortunately, there was no major damage to facial nerves or the salivary glands and areas," said Chung.

Attack seen backfiring

Korea experts said Thursday's attack was a grim reminder of the unresolved conflict on the Korean peninsula, 65 years after North Korea invaded the South and set off a 3-year war.

The Korean War, launched by the grandfather of North Korean ruler Kim Jung Un, ensnared the United States and China and ended with an armistice that left the two rival Koreas in a formal state of war.  The United States maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea to bolster the South against any future North Korean attack.

The knife attack took place against "the backdrop of the ongoing inter-Korean confrontation, which plays out within Korean democracy in the form of a bitter confrontation between progressive and conservative factions," wrote Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an essay on CNN's website.

Snyder, who said he attended a similar breakfast talk with Lippert a week earlier in Seoul, said the attack on the U.S. envoy was likely to backfire if it was motivated by opposition to the U.S.-South Korean security alliance.

"Far from revealing gaps in the U.S.-South Korea alliance or fomenting discord over whether joint military exercises should move forward, the incident is likely to strengthen South Korean feelings of support for the alliance with the United States," he wrote.

Reporting by Songwu Park for RFA's Korean Service, with wire reports. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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