The US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was slashed on his face and arm in Seoul on Thursday by a lone, blade-wielding activist opposed to ongoing US-Korean military drills.
The United States condemned the “act of violence” which left the ambassador bleeding profusely from a deep wound on his right cheek and saw him rushed to hospital where his condition was described as stable.
Witnesses described how a man with a blade concealed in his right hand had lunged across a table at Lippert at a breakfast function at the Sejong Cultural Institute in central Seoul.
The assailant, dressed in traditional Korean clothes and identified as Kim Ki-Jong, 55, was immediately wrestled to the ground and taken into police custody.
As he assaulted Lippert, Kim screamed a slogan in favour of reunifying the divided Korean peninsula, and later shouted his opposition to joint US-South Korea military exercises that began on Monday.
Kim was known to police having been handed a two-year suspended sentence in 2010 for throwing a rock at the then Japanese ambassador to Seoul.
Video footage showed the ambassador being rushed out of the building holding one hand to his bleeding right cheek, and his other hand smeared with blood with an apparent wound to the wrist.
The 42-year-old envoy was bundled into a police car and taken to a nearby hospital, where he was initially treated before being transferred to the prestigious Severance Hospital.
– 25cm paring knife –
District police chief Yoon Myung-Soon said Kim had slashed the ambassador with a 25-centimetre (10-inch) paring knife.
“We have detained him and are investigating the cause of the attack and other circumstances,” he said.
The US State Department confirmed Lippert’s injuries were not life-threatening and said it “strongly condemned this act of violence”.
The White House said President Barack Obama had called the ambassador “to tell him that he and his wife Robyn are in his thoughts and prayers, and to wish him the very best for a speedy recovery”.
Lippert was part of Obama’s inner circle during the then senator’s rise to the White House.
He took on senior roles in national security and defence after the 2008 presidential campaign, before becoming ambassador to Seoul in October last year.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye condemned the “intolerable” assault, saying it was tantamount to an attack on the South Korea-US military alliance.
Park, who is currently on a tour of Gulf states, vowed a “thorough investigation,” while the foreign ministry said it would beef up security for foreign envoys.
– Lack of security –
A spokesman for the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, which hosted the breakfast function, apologised for the lack of security at the event.
“This man suddenly jumped out of the audience seat when the breakfast was about to start at the table,” the spokesman said.
“Other people tried to stop him but the situation unfolded too quickly,” he added.
Kim runs a small activist group that pushes for reunification with North Korea and regularly organises protests against Japanese territorial claims to a group of small islands controlled by South Korea.
As he was being taken from the police station for treatment on an injured ankle, Kim told reporters he had been planning the attack for 10 days.
According to intelligence sources cited by the Yonhap news agency, Kim visited North Korea six times between 2006 and 2007 and tried to erect a memorial in Seoul to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il after his death in late 2011.
Writing on the group’s blog on Tuesday, Kim had complained that the joint US-South Korea drills were blocking dialogue between North and South Korea and preventing reunions for family members divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The annual exercises kicked off earlier this week, triggering a surge in tensions with the North.
Nearly 30,000 US troops are permanently stationed in South Korea and the United States would assume operational command in the event of an armed conflict with the North.
Lippert has proved a popular ambassador, tweeting regularly about his life in Seoul and setting up a tongue-in-cheek Twitter account for his dog, Grigsby.
His wife recently gave birth in Seoul and the couple gave their son a Korean middle name.