Since becoming U.S. ambassador to South Korea last fall, Mark Lippert has been building a reputation as a warm, friendly guy interested in Korean culture: He regularly walks his basset hound, Grigsby, in public and even gave his newborn son a Korean middle name, Sejun.
“This is one of the busiest cities in the world, but lots of people still take time to stop and talk with us,” Lippert said in an interview this week while out for a stroll with the dog in central Seoul.
But Lippert’s approachable style may be altered after a slashing Thursday morning that left his face covered with blood. Attacked by a knife-wielding assailant at an event in Seoul, the ambassador suffered wounds to his face and wrist.
The attack took place at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, where Lippert was one of several speakers scheduled to make remarks on inter-Korean affairs and U.S.-South Korean relations.
The attacker, identified by police as Kim Ki-jong, 55, pounced on Lippert with a paring knife and shouted slogans about unification of North and South Korea and voiced opposition to U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The assailant was wrestled to the ground and arrested.
Lippert was taken to a nearby emergency room before being transferred to a hospital across town. Dr. Jung Nam-shik, who treated Lippert, said the ambassador had five lacerations on his face and left arm, including one cut on his cheek that was more than an inch deep and 4 inches long, and required more than 80 stitches, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
Lippert sustained some nerve damage in his arm, Jung said.
Security for U.S. diplomats varies widely, from high-threat posts in places such as Pakistan and Iraq to safer locations in Western capitals.
Seoul has been a “safe and very comfortable post” in recent decades, where U.S. diplomats could circulate in public and walk their dogs, said Douglas Paal, an East Asia specialist and former U.S. official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor to President Obama, said that although Seoul was considered a “low-threat” post, Lippert had a security team with him at the time of the assault. However, he was slashed “before security could get there,” Rhodes told MSNBC.
Rhodes said officials would review security procedures.
Late Thursday afternoon, Lippert took to his Twitter account, telling followers he was with his wife, Robyn, and was on the mend.
“Doing well&in great spirits! Robyn, Sejun, Grigsby & I - deeply moved by the support! Will be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance!” he tweeted, referring to South Korea, which is formally known as the Republic of Korea. He added text in Korean that translates as “Let’s go together!”
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pledged “a thorough investigation into the case” and “stern measures based on its outcome.” The government, it added, “hopes for the swift recovery of Ambassador Mark Lippert and extends its deepest condolence to his family.”
South Korean President Park Geun-hye is on a trip to the Middle East, but her office issued a statement saying the assailant’s actions were an “attack on the South Korea-U.S. alliance and it can never be tolerated.”
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency called the attack “deserved punishment” for U.S.-South Korean military exercises, deeming the assault “the knife of justice.”
The suspect was known to South Korean police and has a history of violent nationalist activism.
In 2010, Kim hurled concrete blocks at Japan’s ambassador to Seoul, saying he was angry about Japan’s claim to some islets between the two countries. The islets, which are claimed by both countries, are called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan. The disagreement has roiled relations between Seoul and Tokyo in recent years.
Kim is among a small number of hard-line nationalist activists who oppose the U.S. presence in South Korea, arguing that the American military antagonizes North Korea and impedes Korean unification.
The U.S. has 28,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea, working in close cooperation with their South Korean counterparts. Each spring, South Korea and the U.S. conduct joint military exercises, which routinely elicit objections from North Korea.
Washington and Seoul say the exercises are practice for defending against a North Korean attack, but the government in Pyongyang calls them a rehearsal for invading the North. This year’s exercises started Monday and shortly thereafter North Korea launched missiles off its east coast in protest.
Some observers speculated that the attack on Lippert may have been partially inspired by displeasure with recent comments by U.S. State Department official Wendy Sherman. Without naming specific countries, Sherman said that political leaders may “earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy” but that “such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”
Some South Koreans interpreted Sherman’s comments as a move to belittle the country’s grievances with Japan over historical issues, including Dokdo. The Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945.
In South Korea, views of the U.S. are generally positive, but there are small pockets of resentment. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies last year polled South Koreans about their attitude on the U.S., Japan, China and North Korea. The U.S. received the top rating among those countries.
“There’s a dual nature of feelings about the U.S. here,” said Karl Friedhoff, a program officer at the Asan Institute and one of the study’s authors. “Roughly two-thirds of people blame the U.S. for the division of the peninsula, but three-quarters will point out how U.S. economic aid was what allowed South Korea to develop.”
Evans Revere, a former top U.S. diplomat in Seoul, said that although the city is generally safe for American diplomats, “nationalist emotions are running high in [South Korea] these days, and that often provides fertile ground for extremists to come out of the woodwork to vent and act.”
In a comment to the Nelson Report newsletter, Revere recalled a series of incidents during the tense period from 2002 to 2004, when several U.S. soldiers were attacked, a firebomb was thrown over the wall of a U.S. base in downtown Seoul, and the wives of diplomats were spat on by anti-American demonstrators.
Victor Cha, a former top Asia advisor to President George W. Bush, said U.S. ambassadors have often been accompanied at appearances in Seoul by a single security officer. Generally, the security aide doesn’t stay right next to the ambassador, to avoid giving the impression that there is a grave threat.
But this more relaxed approach “may change now,” speculated Cha, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University.
“I think most people are glad that we’re here,” Lippert said Tuesday.
So far during Lippert’s posting in Seoul — his first as ambassador — he has spent most of his time getting settled and has yet to tackle a major policy issue.
A native of Cincinnati, Lippert holds a master’s degree from Stanford University in international policy studies. Before being posted to Seoul, he spent most of his career in Washington with the National Security Council and the Navy and had stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He traveled to East Asia several times as chief of staff to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2013.
South Koreans have responded particularly warmly to Grigsby. Photos and video of him quickly went viral after Lippert’s arrival. The immediate interest was so great that shortly after Lippert arrived in Seoul in October, he was encouraged to set up a Twitter account for Grigsby. The dog was described on the website DiploPundit as “an upcoming star among diplomatic pooches.”
Grigsby’s Twitter feed is full of photos and messages, written in English and Korean, including “I made a friend today!” “I wanna play!”
On Tuesday morning’s walk, Grigsby wore a new collar prominently bearing his Twitter ID, @GrigsbyBasset.
At 42, Lippert is the youngest U.S. ambassador to Seoul. The city, he said, will always have a special meaning for his family, because in January his wife gave birth there to the couple’s first child.
They named him James William Sejun Lippert, choosing the Korean middle name Sejun, which means “to become an exceptional person as a result of leading an honest and clean life,” according to the U.S. Embassy here.
Lippert added that he and his wife have taken to addressing their child using his Korean name, instead of James or William.
“The name is something he’ll carry for his whole life,” Lippert said Tuesday, “and through him, Korea will always be with us.”
Borowiec is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.