You can’t see it on television, but South Korean President Park Geun-hye has a scar that runs from her right ear to her chin. In person, up close, it is just visible below her makeup, a smooth cut that follows the curve of her face. She’s had it since 2006, when she was attacked on the campaign trail by a man wielding a utility knife.
On Thursday, in an eerily similar incident, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was slashed on the face and wrist in the South Korean capital. Photographs from the scene showed him holding the right side of his face, with blood visible on his left hand, and his pink tie splattered red. The U.S. Department of State confirmed the attack and said his injuries are not life threatening. CNN reports that he required 80 stitches. (Park’s attack, by comparison, required 60.)
Lippert, 42, was preparing to deliver an early-morning speech at a restaurant attached to the Sejong Cultural Institute in central Seoul when he was struck with a 10-in. blade. The attacker — since identified by South Korean authorities as 55-year-old Kim Ki-jong — reportedly shouted “South and North Korea should be reunified” during the attack, and continued to shout anti-U.S. slogans as he was restrained.
Both governments responded quickly. “We strongly condemn this act of violence,” said Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. President Park called the incident “intolerable,” likening it to an assault on the South Korea–U.S. military alliance itself. But North Korea applauded the stabbing, calling it a “knife attack of justice.”
The U.S. military has a long-standing presence in South Korea, an arrangement that dates back to the end of the 1950–1953 Korean War. There are currently some 30,000 American troops on the ground, and each spring, U.S. and South Korean forces engage in joint military exercises. North Korea considers the war games a dress rehearsal for invasion, and some South Koreans believe the annual exercises hurt the divided peninsula’s prospects for reconciliation.
Authorities are still investigating the incident, though the timing, and the attacker’s comments, suggest his motivations were political. The suspect said at the scene and online that he was protesting against the start of this year’s military drills. In 2010, Kim lobbed a piece of concrete at Japanese ambassador to South Korea. He received a two-year sentence that was suspended for three years, according to Yonhap, a local newswire.
Notwithstanding these incidents, a daylight attack on a foreign envoy is highly unusual for Seoul. The city of almost 10 million is, by global standards, a peaceful, prosperous place, known these days for its vibrant pop-music and fashion scenes, not political violence.
The well-liked Lippert, a longtime aide to U.S. President Barack Obama who arrived in Seoul in October of last year, was often seen out and about in the capital, greeting local people while walking his family’s basset hound, Grigsby (who, it turns out, has his own Twitter account). Lippert’s son was born in the city, and he and his wife Robyn even gave him a Korean middle name.
Questions are already mounting about security, especially in light of the 2006 knife attack on the now President Park. How did a man with a large knife and history of violence get so close to the ambassador? A spokesperson for the group that hosted the event, the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, has already apologized for the security breach.
And while the attack might mean tighter security at upcoming events, Grigsby won’t be alone in hoping that the gregarious ambassador is back pounding the city’s sidewalks soon.
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