U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert is in stable condition after he was attacked and slashed in the face and left hand Thursday morning at a breakfast meeting in Seoul by a knife-wielding Korean man who reportedly was calling for the two Koreas to be united.
Local news channels showed Lippert, 42, clutching his cheek as blood stained his tie, shirt, and hands. He was rushed to the hospital, where officials reported that his injuries were not serious. The ambassador, a confidant and key foreign-policy adviser to President Barack Obama dating to when Obama was a senator from Illinois and first running for president in 2008, was in surgery for more than two hours after the slashing, and needed 80 stitches to close the wounds on his face.
The State Department confirmed the attack via Twitter, with spokeswoman Marie Harf tweeting: “We can confirm that U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea @mwlippert was assaulted this AM in Seoul, injuries are not life threatening.”
Late Thursday afternoon Lippert tweeted that he was doing well. He offered thanks on behalf of his family and himself, and expressed eagerness to return to work:
"Doing well&in great spirits! Robyn, Sejun, Grigsby & I - deeply moved by the support! Will be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance!"
The slashing occurred early Thursday local time when, according to YTN, Lippert rose to speak at a breakfast meeting at Sejong Hall, a building near the U.S. Embassy.
A man, whose name authorities gave as Kim Ki-jong and who reportedly is the leader of a group that has been calling for peace and reconciliation with North Korea, leaped to his feet and allegedly attacked Lippert with a knife while yelling that the two Koreas must be reunited. The suspect apparently was seated at a table behind Lippert when he jumped up and knocked down the ambassador. The attacker reportedly was injured in the attack, as well, but it was unclear what injuries he sustained.
Some local reports indicated that the assailant shouted, “I oppose joint drills”—apparently referring to annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korean militaries. The U.S. has roughly 27,000 troops in the country. U.S. officials said, however, that they did not know the motive behind the attack.
The suspect is said to have a criminal record, and some local reports claimed he had previously tried to attack another diplomat, apparently the Japanese ambassador to South Korea.
The Associated Press quoted a police official saying that in 2010 Kim threw a piece of concrete at the Japanese ambassador in Seoul—he missed—and that local media reported that in August 2010 he was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term over the attack. Kim was protesting Japan's claim to some small disputed islands that are occupied by South Korea.
Lippert, who was sworn in as ambassador to Seoul last October, is a former Pentagon official. He is a Navy reservist who served as an intelligence officer with the Navy SEALS in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for his service. He joined Obama’s presidential campaign when he returned from Iraq, responsible for briefing the then-senator on foreign policy issues during the campaign. He became close to Obama as he helped the candidate forge views on international affairs and helped prepare him for the presidential debates. When Obama won the election, Lippert became deputy director for foreign policy during the transition. Many credit Lippert with helping Obama develop distinct stances on foreign policy and defense issues. He is said to be in part responsible for Obama’s view that the U.S. should withdraw troops from Iraq.
A U.S. official said Obama called Lippert after the attack.
“The president called US ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Mark Lippert, to tell him that he and his wife Robyn are in his thoughts and prayers, and to wish him the very best for a speedy recovery,” National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
Seoul and Washington conduct annual military exercises, which are widely known. Although many South Koreans support the drills, a minority considers them an obstruction to peace and reconciliation with the North. Many South Koreans, including those who back close relations with Washington, want the American troop presence drastically reduced—or ended altogether. North Korea and South Korea never signed a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War.
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group told CNN that some Koreans see the U.S. as an “obstruction for unification.”
The military drills always infuriate North Korea. On Monday, Pyongyang fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast, South Korean officials said, in response to this week’s annual joint exercises. The missiles were fired hours before the scheduled start of the drills, which North Korea claims are preparations for war.
The missiles landed in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and southern Japan early Monday after traveling about 300 miles, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
While U.S. officials said they did not know the motive behind the attack on Lippert, the incident did take them by surprise, considering South Korea is such a close ally. Chris Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, called the assault “shocking” and predicted, in an interview with CNN, that embassy personnel would be re-evaluating the ambassador’s security.
Others are already saying the incident will trigger much stronger security arrangements for diplomatic personnel in the country and elsewhere.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson told CNN: “American ambassadors abroad are being more targets; they’re becoming more vulnerable.”