South Korea shocked and shamed by attack on US ambassador

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea has reacted with shock and a little shame to a violent knife attack on the US ambassador that jarred harshly with the self-image of a largely safe, well-ordered society.

Civic and political protest is something of a national pastime in South Korea, but while demonstrations can be loud, passionate and physical, acts of extreme violence or civil unrest are rare. And, putting the threat posed by North Korea to one side, the country has largely been untouched by the spectre of terrorism, domestic or external.

So the very public assault on the envoy of the country's most important military and diplomatic ally at a breakfast function in central Seoul, has led some to question whether South Korea has become complacent in what can seem like an increasingly hostile world.

In the case of Thursday's attack, there was particular disquiet that a known political activist with a record of violence against foreign envoys was able to get so close to his target.

Kim Ki Jong, whose assault saw Mr Mark Lippert hospitalised with a deep gash on his face that required 80 stitches, had received a suspended jail sentence in 2010 for hurling a rock at the Japanese ambassador.

"It was a shameful incident because our country, the world's 10th-largest economy, was helpless in the face of such a rudimentary act of terror," the country's largest circulation daily Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial.

Powerful images of Mr Lippert bleeding profusely and clutching a cloth to his gashed cheek appeared in newspapers and TV broadcasts around the world.

Prominent politicians, including opposition leader Moon Jae In, also echoed the feelings of embarrassment and shame, while the English-language Korea Times said it was time South Korea accepted the realities of a world where the "undercurrent of terror" runs strong.

"There should be no more complacency," the newspaper said.

Security for diplomatic personnel is the responsibility of the host nation and, until now, South Korea has had a near-perfect record in that regard.

The Foreign Ministry said Mr Lippert was the first foreign ambassador to be injured in such an attack.

The assault came on the heels of two unsettling shooting incidents that left a total of eight people dead in a country where gun control is tight and gun crime extremely rare.

The profile that has emerged of Kim Ki Jong is of a maverick nationalist who blogged with particular vehemence about the perfidy of "foreign powers" like Japan and the United States.

The fact that he had visited North Korea half a dozen times in the past has raised an inevitable red flag, but there has been nothing to suggest he acted other than alone.

As he was wrestled to the floor, Kim had shouted his opposition to ongoing South Korea-US military exercises that have raised tensions with North Korea.

There are nearly 30,000 US troops permanently stationed in South Korea, and while anti-US sentiment has waxed and waned over the decades, there is overwhelming public support for the military alliance.

US and South Korean officials both moved quickly to dismiss concerns that the attack would have any impact on the overall relationship.

"I think most people accept this was an isolated case that won't have any major diplomatic repercussions," said Mr Lee Dae Woo, an analyst at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute think-tank.

"If anything, it will go the other way, with the public sympathy for the ambassador providing an opportunity to shore up the alliance," Mr Lee said.

North Korea, meanwhile, has been widely condemned for its reaction which came in the form of a dispatch by the official KCNA news agency, describing the attack as "just punishment" for Washington's refusal to cancel this years joint exercises.

A US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pyongyang's response was "outrageously callous, but unfortunately consistent with the nature of the regime and its rhetoric".

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