On Thursday morning, March 5, South Koreans were in consternation at the sight of the bleeding American ambassador, Mark W. Lippert, played and replayed on TV. The attack occurred at a restaurant at the Sejong Center for performing arts, where Lippert was to deliver an address for the breakfast event sponsored by the organization Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation.
The assailant was Kim Ki-jong, radical nationalist at the head of Urimadang, a group that opposes Japan's claims to the disputed Dokdo islets in the Sea of Japan as well as military exercises conducted by foreign powers in South Korea. According to a witness account reported by South Korea’s Yonhap News, Kim decided to attack as soon as he spotted Lippert, who was at the time exchanging business cards. Toppling Lippert and holding the 25-cm kitchen knife to his head, Kim repeatedly stabbed the ambassador, wounding him on his right cheek, left arm, and left hand.
The ambassador, quickly hospitalized at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University in Seoul, appeared at a press conference at the hospital after immediate treatment. He maintained a genial attitude, stating that he would remain “open and friendly” in his interaction with the South Korean peoples as the U.S. ambassador to the nation.
“I feel pretty darn good, all things considered. I mean it was obviously a scary incident but I’m walking, talking, holding my baby, [and] hugging my wife, so I just feel really good,” said Lippert, mentioning his son who was born in South Korea recently, and to whom, according to ABC News, he and his wife gave a Korean middle name. Lippert did not forget to thank the “great medical professionals.”
Meanwhile, the investigations continue into Kim, who has a history of violent political demonstrations. In 2010, he was arrested for attacking the Japanese ambassador with two pieces of concrete to express his resentment at Japan’s claims over the Dokdo islets and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The focal point of the investigation lies in determining whether Kim had accomplices and whether he contravened South Korea’s National Security Law, which prohibits supporting the North Korean government or its ideology.
South Koreans presented two drastically different responses, reflecting the national divide still festering from the Korean War. On the one hand, Korean War veterans—the more elderly, conservative generation—demonstrated in Seoul to express their condolences toward the ambassador and their enmity toward Kim. Some Christian churchgoers showed an extreme form of apology through the traditional fan dance on the street facing the U.S. embassy. On the other hand, there was a backlash of criticism labeling such actions as “god worshipping.”
Platitudes were exchanged between the two governments. The ambassador is now on a solid path to recovery. The joint US-ROK military exercises scheduled for every spring remains unaffected, signaling the ties between the two allies persist unhampered by the incident.
But the disparity within South Koreans’ reactions to Kim’s unexpected criminal act insinuates the presence of deeper wounds that haven’t had the chance to fully heal since the truce put the war in abeyance.
These wounds have to do with South Koreans’ conflicting views of the US, or what Stanford University’s Gi-Wook Shin and Hilary Jan Izatt denoted as “the ideological division within South Korea” in their 2011 Asian Survey article “Anti-American and Anti-Alliance Sentiments in South Korea.” The standard-bearers of the pro-American view are the war veterans who expressed profound condolences for Lippert and viciously condemned Kim. They are the political conservatives, including the current Park administration, and though some of them may harbor “reservations about U.S. policy in the region,” Shin and Izatt maintain that, “Korean conservatives [are] not dissuaded from defending the continued merits of [US-ROK] alliance.”
The pro-American view may stem from a more inherent need for US support that will thus sustain the pro-American side for lasting structural reasons. To maintain a safe psychological and political distance from its northern enemy, South Koreans to a certain extent must view the United States as its supporter and guardian against a belligerent neighbor. This maintenance also entails being on constant guard for “jongbuk” or domestic support for North Korea and its ideology. The North remains “the enemy,” a never-ending menace and red scare that symbolizes the peoples’ struggle to emerge from the ashes of the Korean War, which tellingly has never officially ended. The need is for psychological self-protection more than it is for material support.
In strong contrast to the conservatives, progressives in recent times have gone so far as to “[challenge] the alliance,” parlaying the anti-American sentiment that has existed to some extent since South Korea’s democratization in 1987. Indeed, it was in 1987 that South Koreans began to question the unequal balance of power between their country and its patron. Economically capable and endorsing democracy, South Korea pressed for equality in its rapport with the United States, an “inevitable outcome” according to Korea University’s Nae-Young Lee. Recently, a string of misdemeanors by the US soldiers deployed in South Korea at the end of last year has only served to rekindle South Koreans’ desire for autonomy. Some soldiers’ controversial involvement with prostitution led to the US Army issuing a statement in the 194th Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) conference on December 9 that it would respond strongly to any sort of sex crime perpetrated by its personnel.
The desire for greater geopolitical autonomy is evident in the attacker Kim’s professed motive: Kim claimed that South Korea is a “semi-colony” to the United States as opposed to the autonomous North Korean government. This statement mirrors the responses that accused the first wave of apologies to Lippert as “god worshipping.”
Kim also asserted that the periodic joint military exercises were hindering Korean reunification. His claims sound strikingly similar to North Korean rhetoric; in fact, North Korea was, unsurprisingly, quick to hail Kim’s actions as dealing out a “just punishment for US war maniacs.”
While Kim’s advocacy for greater South Korean autonomy is certainly not unwarranted in and of itself, the similarity between his claim on the joint exercises’ effect and classic North Korean rhetoric is problematic: quite obviously, stopping the joint exercises will not lead to reunification. Kim seems to think that by conceding all to North Korea’s wishes, South Korea can somehow accomplish reunification in the absence of the “juggernaut” that is the United States. Such thinking is a wistful fantasy at best, especially in light of North’s history of nagging for concessions and then turning its back on initial deals.
Challenging the historic US-ROK alliance cannot be evaluated as completely wrong on the part of South Koreans. Any nation, once established, yearns for independence from influential outsiders. Yet it is poor reasoning like Kim’s that fuels the progressive side to an extreme that polarizes South Korean views of the United States. Practical concerns for physical security aside, South Koreans are obliged to question the moral virtue in pressing for greater autonomy if people like Kim surface with unwarranted extremist tactics.
The unhealed wounds in South Korean society, the divides between the older and younger generations and the political left and right, feed radicals like Kim, who in turn feed lingering doubts about the value of endorsing autonomy. Left unhindered, these extremists hold the potential to pervert the South Koreans’ value system, undoing the good that democracy did in rendering autonomy virtuous.
The solution may lie in voluntary departure. South Korea must depart from its constant paranoia with left wing or “red” politics. The persistence of the red scare has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, engendering unjustifiable, despicable forms of self-expression like Kim’s that are rather like eruptions from repressed “progressives.” It is only by defusing these extremists by incorporating them into the political process that politics will be conducted in a productive—not destructive—manner.
The impediments to a better politics lie with extremists like Kim as well. They need to realize that there is no dichotomy between ideal reunification and the evil US influence. Kim maintains that Lippert was, at least for him, the “symbol” of the United States he hated. It is perhaps telling that he imbued that symbolic meaning onto a white man who was assigned the post just last October, and not to the former US ambassador to Korea Sung Kim, a Korean American. To the xenophobic nationalist, Lippert’s whiteness must have reinforced the false dichotomy of good and evil. But in reality, treating the DPRK as the good guy instead of the United States will not make reunification any closer.
Clearly, blind nationalism and indulgence in violent, spur-of-the-moment extreme urges will not come to any good. The remedy lies in re-opening the deep wounds in South Korean society, however painful, and curing social ills at their roots. Only by such a solution will yet another attack be prevented.