U.S. ambassador injured in slashing attack by activist

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U.S. ambassador injured in slashing attack by activist


U.S. Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert bleeding after an attack by an assailant Thursday morning at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul. [NEWSIS]

U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert was attacked by an anti-American activist wielding a 25-centimeter (9.8 inch) knife at a breakfast function Thursday morning and sustained wounds to his face and wrist.

The attacker, 55-year old Kim Ki-jong, shouted demands to halt ongoing Korea-U.S. military drills.

Lippert was rushed to a nearby hospital for initial examination and then moved to the Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital for two surgeries, including 80 stitches on his face. The surgeries were successful and Lippert was Tweeting a positive message by 4:34 p.m.

“Doing well&in great spirits … deeply moved by the support!”

The American diplomat, who assumed his post in October, was attacked around 7:40 a.m. at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul, where he was about to give a lecture on peace, unification of the two Koreas and the prospects of Korea-U.S. relations.

The attacker, who is head of his own research institute on reunification issues and has a history of attacking foreign embassy people, was immediately pounced on, disarmed and arrested. He also once set himself on fire near the Blue House to protest an alleged attack on his institute.

“This is an attack on the Korea-U.S. alliance,” President Park Geun-hye said Thursday after she was told about the incident during a trip to the Middle East. “The government is taking all necessary measures including a thorough investigation and reinforced security.”

Park sent her wishes for Lippert’s recovery and expressed regret for the attack to U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. government.

Lippert, 42, is known to have close personal ties with the White House and an extensive network within the National Security Council and the Pentagon. He has been highly engaged with the public in Korea, even setting up a Facebook account in the name of his basset hound pet Grigsby.

The White House said Obama called Lippert after the attack to express his hope for a speedy recovery. The U.S. State Department issued a statement that said, “We strongly condemn this act of violence.”

“The suspect shouted slogans about peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula, against war and against the Korea-U.S. military drills,” said Shin Jae-hyun, director-general for North American Affairs at the foreign ministry. “Kim used a 25-centimeter-long knife to attack the ambassador and he sustained five injuries including an 11-centimeter cut on his right chin.”

Lippert was attacked when he was starting to eat the first course of his breakfast and before his speech, said Saenuri lawmaker Chang Yoon-seok, who was seated next to the ambassador. Kim, who was seated at a distant table, approached and started slashing, Chang said. Lippert was talking about his son, who was born in Seoul in January.

According to Shin, Lippert was first sent to Kangbuk Samsung Hospital around 7:50 a.m. and then moved to Severance Hospital at 9:22 a.m. for surgeries. According to the plastic and orthopedics surgeons who performed the operations, two surgeries were carried out simultaneously and they took about two and a half hours.

A group of doctors who treated Lippert held a press conference in the afternoon and said it took 80 stitches to close the wound on Lippert’s face. The 11-centimeter-long cut was about 3-centimeter deep, they said. The ambassador also suffered a penetration wound, about 3-centimeter-long, on his left arm.

Professor Choi Yun-rak, who performed the surgery on his arm, said the nerves of Lippert’s pinkie were damaged and tendons of thumb and index finder were also partially cut. “The nerve repair went successfully, and the fingers will fully recover their functions after about six months,” he said.

According to Chung Nam-sik, head of Severance Hospital, Lippert will have to stay in the hospital for three to four days.

According to the government, it was not the first time that the assailant had attacked a diplomat in Korea. The activist threw two cement blocks at then-Japanese Ambassador to Korea Toshinori Shigeie during a lecture in 2010. An embassy interpreter was injured and Kim was punished with a two-year suspended prison term.

“So far, Kim has six prior criminal convictions,” said Shin of the Foreign Ministry. “It is our understanding that he habitually attacked workers of foreign embassies here.”

Kim violently resisted the arrest and then claimed that his ankle was hurt during the capture. He also demanded a lawyer.

Kim was sent to a nearby clinic around 11 a.m. and arrived at the Jongno Police Precinct around 12:38 p.m. for questioning. A police official said they may charge Kim with attempted murder when they seek a detention warrant.

Shortly after the attack, Kim told journalists that he had engaged in anti-war protests for the past 30 years and demanded that Seoul and Washington stop their war games immediately. He also said regular joint military drills have prevented reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

“The Key Resolve exercise is ruining inter-Korean relations,” Kim said right after he was wrestled to the ground. “I am not ashamed. I used this knife to peel a fruit yesterday.”

When Kim arrived at the police station at 12:30 p.m., journalists again asked why he attacked Lippert. Kim said, “Only in this way will the American come to their senses.”

Kim said he had no accomplice and planned the attack alone. He denied that the assault had anything to do with a recent controversy over remarks by Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs in the U.S. State Department, in which she issued a rare criticism of Korean and Chinese leaders’ approach to Japan.

Born is Gangjin, South Jeolla in 1960, Kim graduated from the law school of Sungkyunkwan University in 1984. He devoted most of his career to unification issues and carried out anti-American and anti-Japanese activities. In 1984, he established the Woori Madang, a unification research group.

The Unification Ministry said Kim was hired by the Institute for Unification Education as an instructor for three years between 2006 and 2009. The ministry also said he visited Kaesong in North Korea eight times between 2006 and 2007, all for a campaign to plant trees in the border city.

In 2007, Kim created another group to promote Korea’s sovereign rights over Dokdo, islets also claimed by Japan. And in October 2007, he set fire to himself near the Blue House. In July 2010, he carried out the attack on the Japanese ambassador.

Kim’s younger brother Kim Ki-chang told the JoongAng Ilbo that the man has been estranged from the family for years because of his extreme actions. “He was trying to prove something, but society was not accepting it, so he is probably acting more radically,” the younger brother said.

Because almost all senior foreign affairs officials including Ju Chul-ki, presidential senior secretary for foreign and security affairs, and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se are with President Park in the Middle East, the government decided to assign the aftermath of the attack to newly appointed Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo.

Lee ordered the government to find out if anyone else was behind the attack and support Lippert’s medical treatment. He also ordered the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs and the police to improve security for diplomatic missions including the U.S. Embassy.

Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong was ordered to provide a swift explanation to the U.S. government and make sure that the incident won’t affect the two countries’ relations.

While the assailant demanded that the annual military drill between Korea and the United States should be stopped, the Ministry of National Defense said it will go on.

According to the police, the U.S. Embassy did not make a request for any security for the ambassador’s visit to the event. According to the Presidential Security Act, police protection is provided when an embassy makes a request.

“The U.S. Embassy, citing security reasons, did not inform us in advance about the ambassador’s schedule,” said a police official. “They informed us earlier in the morning. The U.S. Embassy provided its own security details for the ambassador.”

The Jongno Police Precinct made an independent decision to send a unit to the event and deployed intelligence detectives but did not screen participants or searched their belongings.

“Because we sent the unit without an official request, we could not search the participants unless the event organizer, the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, or the U.S. embassy makes a request,” he said.

According to the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, Kim was invited to the event, but did not RSVP. The organizer allowed Kim’s entry although he was not on the list of attendees.

The council said it had a tradition of holding a lecture by the U.S. ambassador since 2004 but never asked for police protection before.

The police said it assigned four police officers to protect Lippert as of 10 a.m. Thursday and three more to protect his wife Robin.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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