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Making Sense of the Shocking Stabbing of a U.S. Ambassador

The extremist activist who assaulted Mark Lippert last week had longstanding grievances against the U.S. that many South Koreans share.

U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert heads for the hospital in Seoul after the attack. Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap/AP Photo

For many Americans, news of a knife attack on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert in Seoul last Thursday came as a shock. Given the strong, longstanding relationship between our two nations, it may seem like there’s no rational explanation for such a violent attack. Stories covering Lippert’s recovery from the deep gash to his face and five wounds in his left arm (none of which did any serious damage), yet going into very little detail on his assailant, a 55-year-old South Korean man named Kim Ki-Jong, have only increased that sense of mystery. The result has been the impression that Ki-Jong was a shocking aberration, an unstable agent with a violent history being manipulated by the sinister North Korea—South Korean police have been quick to point out that the assailant visited North Korea seven times between 1999 and 2007, and North Korea’s giddy and self-righteous coverage of the attack is suspect.

But Ki-Jong, who decried United States-South Korean military drills and called for the reunification of North and South Korea during the attack, was actually an extreme manifestation of anti-American sentiments that are more common in South Korean society than many outsiders might think. In fact, these home grown antipathies are so popular that a decade before “Gangnam Style” brought him to the United States, the adorable PSY was winning points at home by rapping about the slow and painful death of American soldiers. In this light, the fact that attacks like Ki-Jong’s are bizarre outliers in South Korea is more a testament to the civility of outcry in that country than anything else.

Some of the anti-American sentiment in South Korea stems from local discomfort about the substantial U.S. military presence there. In the interest of monitoring the border between the two Koreas, the United States keeps almost 30,000 troops in Korea permanently; in the past, these troops have occasionally committed severe crimes, raping or murdering locals or causing lower level friction. But even the most passionate protests about abuses and transgressions by these outsiders with guns and a misplaced sense of belonging largely remain civil, escalating into scuffles with local police but never murders.

Map shows DMZ dividing North and South Korea. Image by Rishabh Tatiraju via Wikimedia Commons

The bigger motive in the Ki-Jong attack was the issue of Korean reunification. Although there was a time when talk of reunifying North and South Korea was a fringe concept, since the 1970s South Korean politicians have openly pursued better relations with North Korea and opened dialogue about reuniting the two halves of the peninsula to much popular acclaim. As of last year, unification under South Korean leadership enjoyed 75 percent approval in popular polls, and the government even has a Minister for Unification. The fact that North Korea too, expresses a wish for reunification (although with very different ideas about how it should happen) fuels the faith that unity is possible. In fact, the recent stabbing actually occurred at an event hosted by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, a body that advocates for a peaceful reunification process.

Although reunification sounds on its face like a strictly Korean affair, America’s role as a vital player in the history and future of this movement is an established fact on the peninsula. After all, the United States was vital in establishing an artificial division of Korea after World War II without popular consent. And in the early Cold War lead-up to the Korean War American agents egged on the peninsula’s divisions, participating in the perpetuation of a harsh, authoritarian South Korean regime that squelched dialogue with the North. The 1950 to 1953 war that witnessed the death of millions of Koreans, the separation of millions of families, and the creation of a long-term ceasefire rather than peace—an American-mediated non-solution that perpetuates tragedy.

Ever since, the United States has maintained military drills there under the pretense of beating back potential aggression from an unpredictable and hawkish North. But many Koreans, given their national experience of American manipulation and America-led catastrophe, suspect that the United States’ fixation on saber rattling and complete dismissal of reunification is actually the primary cause of North Korea’s dictatorial regime and militant posturing. Ending U.S. military drills and generally moving for a lower American presence in the peninsula, the argument runs, will relieve pressure and allow North Korea to come to the table for meaningful, productive, and substantive reunification talks, ending the tragedy of families’ separation, starvation in the North, and the general tension of permanent military readiness on both sides. This view—one that suspects America of manipulating Korea and subjecting both nations to suffering for its own martial and political ends—is so popular these days that it’s not even uncommon to hear Southern politicians publically calling America out in their pushes for reunification.

Kim Ki-jong, who attacked Ambassador Mark Lippert, carried to the hospital on a stretcher. Han Jong-chan/Yonhap via Reuters

Yet despite the strength of these beliefs and the trans-national trauma that undergirds them, there has been relatively little violence born of the reunification movement in South Korea. One of the only other news-making attacks clearly tied to this ideology came in 2006, when current president Park Guen-Hye was first campaigning for office and was similarly attacked by a knife-wielding man. But neither that incident nor this attack can really be taken as a sign of growing violence in the expression of local grievances. By all accounts, Ki-Jong, who also attacked a Japanese ambassador five years ago, acted alone, with no provocation or support from any Northern or Southern organization. The fact that such attacks are so rare is a reflection of a dedication towards non-violent protest and measured action in the region—not a reflection of how rare or fringe the sentiments that motivate such attacks are.

However if America does not acknowledge the popularity of reunification and its role in that process, both historically and currently, it runs the risk of showing Koreans that vocal, yet restrained activism will not be rewarded. The repercussions of that conclusion could be dire. Perhaps it is time for the United States to start pushing for some official acknowledgement of our often-destructive role in Korea’s past, and step up to direct efforts towards the goal of pacification and reunification. By pushing for the recognition of the legitimate grievances behind this seemingly insane attack, we stand the best chance of heading off future violence, whether against government officials or anyone else.

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