On Thursday morning, Mark Lippert, the American ambassador to South Korea, was viciously attacked by a razor-wielding assailant moments before Lippert was set to speak at a meeting in Seoul. “South and North Korea should be reunified," the attacker yelled as he gashed Lippert's face and wrist, causing wounds that would ultimately require two-and-a-half hours of surgery and some 80 stitches.
Among the many strange things about the episode is how it was described in different corners. The U.S. State Department issued an initial statement in which it labeled the attack an "assault" and condemned it as an "act of violence." Meanwhile, North Korea praised the attack as a "knife shower of justice" and "just punishment" for military cooperation between the United States and South Korea. Absent from most international accounts was the word "terrorism," which is how several South Korean officials characterized it.
The BBC notes that the attacker, Kim Ki-jong, had participated in a number of provocative, and sometimes violent, political acts over the years, including the attempted construction of a public memorial to late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a 2010 attack on a Japanese envoy, and the 1985 burning of an American flag at the American embassy in Seoul. In addition to calling for the reunification of Korea, Kim also denounced joint military drills between the United States and South Korea.
The attacks comes just months after the South Korea Constitutional Court disbanded the United Progressive Party, which held five seats in the 300-seat parliament but called for severing ties with the United States and reunifying with North Korea. According to the court, the party “aimed at using violent means to overthrow our free democratic system.” As The New York Times noted, it was the first forced dissolution of a political party in the country since 1958.
An irony here is that Thursday's attack took place while Lippert was attending an event organized by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation which, CNN notes, is a group that "advocates peaceful reunification between the two Koreas." Kim was apparently a member of the group.
Despite the hostile rhetoric between North Korea and South Korea, which have technically been at war since the 1950s, violent incidents within the borders of the two countries seem to be rare. Nevertheless, as Doyeun Kim wrote in The Atlantic in 2012, even as the Korean War fades from memory, tensions still linger:
Although it is said that this is one of the world's tensest borders, most have served their two years without many incidents. But two of the most provocative North Korean aggressions since the 1953 armistice happened ...[within the past few years]: the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March 2010, which killed 46 seamen, and the shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010, which killed two marines and two civilians, and injured others. These were contained incidents involving the navy and marines along the sea border west of the Korean peninsula, but ground forces along the 38th parallel and everywhere else were on alert, ready to go to war at the government's word.
By Thursday evening, Kim was in custody, where authorities are weighing whether to pursue homicide charges. Lippert was already back to tweeting again:
Doing well&in great spirits! Robyn, Sejun, Grigsby & I - deeply moved by the support! Will be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance! 같이 갑시다!