THE BLOG

How Was a Violent Criminal with Prior Convictions in South Korea Able to Get So Close to US Ambassador?

27/03/2015 12:05 GMT | Updated 25/05/2015 10:59 BST

Even as the massive joint military exercise by South Korea and the US is set to begin on March 28, the protestors of the drill have already perpetrated one violent assault and multiple verbal attacks on it.

It happened because the US is viewed as the enemy of North Korea and a friend of South Korea for the same reason: American support for the "democratic, peaceful" country of South Korea, which is viewed as its strongest ally.

Hence, this month's assault on the US Ambassador, Mark Lippert, sparked multilayered viewpoints and perspectives on the US-Korean relationship. There were some simple questions, and many complex ones: Why did the attack take place? Why didn't South Korea shore up its security? In spite of Kim Ki-jong's record of having thrown a 10-cm brick on the Japanese Ambassador in 2010, how did he get access to the area? Why was his sentence light? Is the government grant to Kim's free access as innocuous as it looks?

One thing of course became clear---Kim's intentions. He slashed the right side of Lippert's face, which opened a five-centimeter gash, even as he shouted that the South and North Koreas needed to come together, and the military training to prepare for war should stop.

"Oppose the war," cried Kim, even as he was taken away in the police car. "South and North Korea should be reunified."

The police are investigating and seeking a case of attempted murder charge against him. After his attack on the Japanese Ambassador in 2010, to protest the Jap claims on Takeshima or Dokdo islets, he had received a two-year suspended jail sentence. Yet, he did not get too much flak for the attack, considering the chilling relations between the two countries. But the attack on Lippert has evoked more concern, as South Korea is seen as the "closest ally" of the US.

Officials at Seoul's Jongno police station knew about his past, but did not believe that he would perpetrate so much harm at the breakfast meeting, in spite of his ties to the host organization.

One section of media critics slams the Korean government for not being contrite enough about its negligence, but another section of media calls the Koreans "over-obsessed" with apologizing. John Delury, an American professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, has summed it up well in this New York Times article: "South Koreans felt shock and deep sympathy...But now government officials and political parties are hyper-politicizing...".

However, the mixed response to the incident is really a reflection of the myriad spinoffs of global conflict, which is deeply complex.

The US-South Korean drills will indeed ruin the national efforts for reconciliation, according to the police. Even as South Koreans consider the US presence favourably, many leftists are livid that the US has put a spoke in their reunification, due to its own ideological warfare with Russia.

While North Korea's gloating, as well as its history of dictatorship under the Kim family makes it seem almost like a nutcase nation, there is no denying that since World War II, the United States cannot pin a moral medal on itself. According to The Washington Post, the US has been involved in an almost "unbroken chain of major and minor wars in distant and poorly understood countries. Yet for a meddlesome superpower that claims the democratic high ground, it can sometimes be shockingly incurious and self-absorbed. In the case of the bombing of North Korea, its people never really became conscious of a major war crime committed in their name."

Whether justified or not, "The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America's own leaders," writes Blaine Harden in The Washington Post. "Over a period of three years or so, we killed off -- what -- 20 percent of the population," Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War had reported.

The symbolic protest of Mark Lippert, then, seems to be a cog in the larger wheel of international relations. The ideological Cold War started the chasm, with the Super Powers dividing the ancient country into two blocks in 1945, after which there has been no looking back. In 1950, the invasion by the Communist-backed North Korea, and the US support for the South led to armistice in July 1953, but the split has continued over the years.

With the waning and waxing of the Cold War, then, it is not only the Super Powers that slide onto the edge of a stressful world, but related nations and people that get hit in the crossfire. The irony is that even if the Big Countries patch up, overcome their differences and get into some trade partnership, other countries they mauled continue to suffer the collateral damage.

Hence, the deterioration of Afghanistan due to the ideological warfare of two blocs, which were not at all relevant to it, helped to stoke the fires of fundamentalism and begin a complete reversal of progress and development in various pockets of the Middle East.

The "violent criminal" assault on the US Ambassador, then, is not just a lone wolf terror attack, but a symbolic---though crude and cruel---strike at mistakes in history.

The solution is to learn from history, else, as George Santayana puts it, repeat its mistakes endlessly.