The recent vicious attack on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert (he was stabbed in the face in Seoul) is, in fact, not the first attack on an American ambassador in that country. The earlier attackers on Ambassador Donald Gregg’s residence in 1989, however, were radical students with anti-free trade motives. The 55 year-old who assaulted Ambassador Lippert, on the other hand, has ties to radical pro-Pyongyang organizations and has visited North Korea several times. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency’s outrageous reaction to the vicious attack, calling it “just punishment for U.S. warmongers” is also highly disturbing.
I was in Korea at the time of the 1989 attack. Here’s how it played out: Then-Ambassador Gregg and his wife were sleeping when six students entered their residence. According to an October 15, 1989, article in the Chicago Tribune, the self-proclaimed “Patriotic Suicide Squad” diverted the attention of Korean police guarding the compound and scaled an eight-foot high stonewall to gain entry into the compound. (U.S. Marine security guards are only stationed at the chancery of an embassy; host country police protect diplomatic residences.) Ambassador and Mrs. Gregg listened at their locked bedroom door while the students smashed furniture, lamps, and artifacts, while shouting anti-American slogans. They did an estimated $30,000 in damage. The Greggs reportedly escaped via a side door in their pajamas to another diplomatic residence on the compound, while the students allegedly used an inflammatory liquid in an attempt to set the wooden residence (an example of traditional Korean architecture) on fire. They were, however, stopped and taken into custody by the Korean police.
The incidents, involving Ambassador Gregg and now, far more severely, Ambassador Lippert, while deeply regrettable, do not impact in any way the strong U.S.-South Korea alliance. The American people are sophisticated enough to recognize that violent radicals and/or deeply disturbed individuals exist in every country, The fact that it was disclosed that “Jihadi John,” who beheaded American hostages beginning with James Foley, was a citizen of the United Kingdom did not impact in any way Americans friendly feelings for the British people. Nor did the Korean people express any animosity toward Japanese people when Mun Se-gwang, a pro-North Korean resident of Japan, stole a revolver from an Osaka police box and smuggled it in his luggage on a fight to South Korea in 1974. Mun used the revolver to assassinate South Korea’s well-loved First Lady, Yuk Young-soo, the mother of the current South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of South Korea’s citizens welcome the presence of U.S. forces on their soil as a guarantor of their national security.
The account of the attack on our Ambassador by an assailant with a knife called to mind the attack on President Park, back when she was a member of the National Assembly, by a man wielding a box cutter. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 26, 2006 that “South Korean opposition leader Park Geun-hye, perhaps the most prominent woman in the country, was slashed in the face Saturday night at a crowded rally for a Seoul mayoral candidate.” Park reportedly received a 4-inch facial cut in the incident. Her assailant, Ji Chung-ho, 50, was a chronic criminal with eight previous convictions.
Ambassador Lippert’s assailant, Kim Ki-jong, 55,by contrast, may have dangerous political connections. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Kim has visited North Korea seven times. He also tried to erect a memorial altar in for late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Further, Yonhap quoted a Seoul prosecution official on condition of anonymity as stating, "We considered the gravity of the issue and that the act could be seen as terrorism." The BBC reported that, immediately prior to the attack, Kim shouted, "South and North Korea should be reunified!" and condemned the current annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises.