The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while giving a speech in Seoul Thursday morning. According to Reuters, Lippert was attacked while attending a forum on Korean unification. While the injuries were not life-threatening, he received cuts to his face and wrist that required 80 stitches in the hospital. In a message posted on the embassy website and on Twitter, Lippert said he was “doing well & in great spirits!”
The attacker, later identified as Kim Ki-jong, reportedly yelled “the two Koreas must be reunited!” during the attack. Kim also yelled “I carried out an act of terror” as he was being physically restrained after the attack. Kim was arrested at the scene. During a police interrogation, Kim said his attack was meant as a protest against joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which Kim said were an obstacle to Korean unification.
North Korea applauded the attack, with the official KCNA news agency calling it a “deserved punishment.” The piece added, “”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.”
Pyongyang had previously offered to halt future nuclear tests if the U.S. and South Korea agreed to discontinue their joint exercises. When that effort was rebuffed, North Korean officials threatened to use the “toughest measures” to respond to the joint drills, including the possibility of a preemptive strike.
Though his stated rationale for the attack closely mirrored Pyongyang’s position, Kim said he had acted alone. Kim was apparently fascinated by North Korea, having reportedly traveled there eight times from 2006-2007 alone. In addition to anti-U.S. actions (including flag burning and protests prior to Thursday’s attack), Kim has also protested against Japan for its territorial dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands.
A statement from the U.S. State Department confirmed the attack. “We strongly condemn this act of violence,” spokesperson Marie Harf said.
A statement from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government was “appalled” by the attack. The MOFA statement noted particular concern “that such an act was committed against the Ambassador from the U.S., the ROK’s most important ally.” South Korea promised to “conduct and thorough investigation” and to increase its efforts to protect diplomats in South Korea.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye personally called Lippert to express her sympathy, saying she was “much surprised and deeply troubled” by the attack. Park added that “such acts of violence can not be tolerated under any circumstances” and vowed to ensure that “the incident would not have any negative implications on the ROK-US alliance.” Park is currently traveling in the Middle East.
South Korean defense officials also stressed that the attack would not derail ongoing joint exercises with the U.S.