The US ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was attacked in the first week of March 2015 at a breakfast forum hosted by the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, in Seoul discussing Korean unification. After the knife attack, Lippert needed 80 stitches and two and a half hours of surgery. Though preliminary investigations indicated a possible link of the attack with North Korea, the implications are rather more serious. Believed to be a Korean nationalist, he was protesting against the US-South Korean annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises that began on March 2 to April 24.
Identified as 55-year-old Kim Ki-jong, representative of the Uri Madang, a civic organization that he founded in the 1980s, demanding reconciliation between the two Koreas and peace against war, and to promote traditional Korean folk culture, he was quickly detained and further probe of his act is underway. Kim is believed to have had visited North Korea seven times between 1999 and 2007. Kim also had tried to erect a memorial to Kim Jong-il in Seoul after the late North Korean leader’s death in 2011. Also, he staged one-man protest against Japan over disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, and led a protest outside a US army base in Seoul in November 2014. It is reported that he once self-immolated in front of the Blue House in 2010 in protest over an alleged assault on a colleague, which he blamed on the government. He needed an emergency medical care. These implicitly suggest that a link between North Korea’s roles in the attack exists.
Does it mean that North Korea has launched another game plan to up the ante to the on-going tensions in the peninsula? The suspected North Korean link is because most South Koreans have never visited the secretive North. The two states continue to remain technically at war under a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. A heavily armed border at 38 Parallel Line at Panmunjom manned by the UN forces divide the peninsula. The suspect, however, denied that he ever visited the North and that there were no connections of his actions with North Korea. But according to the records of the Unification Ministry, Kim was authorised to visit the North as he wanted to plant trees near the North Korean city of Kaesong, the place for the joint industrial complex established between the two states.
Kim is known to have a violent nature. In 2010, he had tried to attack the Japanese ambassador to South Korea by throwing a piece of concrete, for which he served a suspended jail term. Seoul prosecutors also had investigated Kim after he allegedly assaulted at least one public employee at an outdoor pop concert in January 2015. Surprisingly, he was a member of the pro-unification group that hosted the forum discussing unification when the attack on Lippert took place. His link to the North could be established from the reaction that came from Pyongyang, which said that Lippert “deserved punishment” for the military drills, calling the assault “the knife of justice”. The official KCNA observed: “The recent case amid mounting anti-Americanism reflects the mindset of south Korean people censuring the U.S. for bringing the danger of a war to the Korean peninsula through the madcap saber-rattling”.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry lost no time in condemning the statement as “senseless” and “irrational”. Despite the presence of security, it was unfortunate that diplomats’ life come under threat while on duty in another country. The US and South Korea are allies and the former has offered security guarantee under treaty obligations. The US also maintains 28,500 military personnel in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. Though some sections of Korean people do not approve the presence of US military in their territory, such opposition has waned in recent times in the wake of heightened tensions coming from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
As expected, the US condemned Pyongyang’s “callous” reaction to the knife attack on its ambassador. The US also termed the North Korea’s reaction as “consistent with the nature of the regime and its rhetoric”. Pyongyang always sees the joint US-South Korea military drills as preparation for invasion. It launched two small missiles into the ocean earlier in the week in apparent displeasure. Having been arrested, Kim could face charge including attempted murder, assaulting a foreign envoy, obstruction, and violating a controversial law that bans praise or assistance for North Korea. But Kim claims that he acted alone and was only protesting against the military exercises that anti-US activists see as a major obstacle to their goal of a unified Korea.
This incident has raised questions over the kind of security provided to foreign envoys in South Korea. The assault is a bit unusual because despite regular threats of war from North Korea, Seoul is considered a relatively low-risk diplomatic posting. That image has now been dented with the attack on Lippert. Curiously enough, though Lippert was provided with one full-time bodyguard by the Seoul metropolitan police, unlike in India, for example, police in South Korea are not armed. Since then, security arrangements even for other US diplomatic officials have been increased.
The Seoul police are trying to find out whether Kim violated the national security law. Enacted in 1948 to protect the fledgling South Korean state from infiltration by the communist North, the law prohibits the spoken or written promotion of North Korean ideology, deeming any such activity to be “anti-state” and subject to up to seven years imprisonment. There was also a degree of shame and anxiety that a man with a record of violence against foreign envoys was able to carry out the assault. “We are ashamed for not being able to prevent such a terrorist attack by a radical nationalist,” the English-language JoonAng daily newspaper said in an editorial.
During the assault, Kim screamed a slogan in favour of reunifying the divided Korean peninsula, and later shouted his opposition to the joint US-South Korean military drills that began the same week. The annual exercises always trigger a surge in tensions with the North and Kim said they were responsible for blocking a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue.
Therefore, the attack on the US envoy demonstrates an upsurge of pro-North radicalism in South Korea. Since coming to power, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has adopted a hard-line approach towards the North. This time too, Park 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.”
The attacker Kim belongs to a group of Korean nationalists opposed to the American presence in the South. 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. Though protests and civic activism in the South began to wane after the North conducted a nuclear test in 2006, 2009 and again in 2013, the nationalists when learnt that that the South was paying a large amount of cash for diplomacy with the North with often no visible reciprocation, their protests intensified. Notwithstanding such voices, civic protests against the US have slowed because majority of South Koreans feel US forces are still needed because of the perceived threats from the North.
The incident has raised concern that US-South Korea might worsen. This concern was triggered by the comments made by US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman Sherman who said that it would not be hard for “a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy”, referring to frosty relations between South Korea and Japan. Her comments were interpreted as the US taking sides with Japan in the issue on wartime history shared by Seoul and Tokyo.
Political parties raised a worrying pitch toward the possible worsening of the US-South Korea alliance. Kim Moo-sung, chief of the ruling Saenuri Party, said during a party meeting that it was a “terrorist attack” against the alliance between Seoul and Washington and terrorist forces should be rooted out. “Using violence while shouting opposition to war” is a self- contradiction, Kim said. Similarly, ruling party floor leader Yoo Seung-min expressed deep worries about the possibly serious effects on the South Korea-US alliance. Moon Jae-in, head of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said violence can never be justified, expressing hopes for speed recovery of Lippert.
The incident demonstrated the frustration in certain section of the South Korean people who just cannot reconcile to the reality that the situation is too complex that begs an immediate solution. In a democratic system, such radicalism has no place and the attack needs to be condemned in strongest possible term. One only hopes that such aberrations do not take place again so as that threatens diplomatic relations between any two countries, with US-South Korea relations being no exception.