So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.
I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.
So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.
The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.
Around 7:40 am (KST), the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked at a breakfast on Korean unification. His attacker, Kim Ki Jong, slashed Lippert’s face and wrist. Lippert was taken to a hospital for surgery. Kim is a member of two nationalist groups – one regarding national unification, the other concerning Dokdo. The attack, Kim said, was a protest against the current South Korean-US military exercise, Key Resolve. Not surprisingly, the attack has dominated the South Korea news all day. A few quick points are in order:
1. Kim does not represent anything like majority opinion in South Korea on the alliance with the United States.
Anti-Americanism in Korea is an issue, but not a large one. It tends to come in waves and is often the result of elite political manipulation. The largest recent outburst was in 2007-08 over US beef imports. A rumor spread in South Korea that US beef was contaminated by mad cow disease, and this catalyzed a groundswell of candlelight vigils in the streets against a US-Korean free-trade deal at the time. But it was also widely noted that Korean left-wing parties emphasized the American connection to help their political opposition to both a conservative president they dislike (Lee Myung-Bak) and trade deal their voters opposed. Similarly, when Roh Moo-Hyun ran for president (2002), he explicitly ran against the US, but that helped him get elected. He did actually not move to expel US Forces Korea. Since Roh, Korea has elected two pro-American conservatives in a row. In fact, part of Kim’s anger may be how unresponsive the Korean political system actually is to popular anti-Americanism.
2. South Korean left-wing parties do not endorse direct action against US personnel in the Korea.
Koreans of all parties are very nationalistic, but the South Korean right, which one would assume to be more so, is actually not. The South Korean right supports a tough line against the North and American tie, which means it is often labelled ‘internationalist.’ It is the left that is more traditionally nationalistic: sympathetic to unconditional unification and blaming the Americans (and Japanese) for national division. These topsy-turvy political categories generate a lot of political confusion, but it is important to note that Korea’s democratic left does not endorse violent action against the Americans. Recently, a radical, left-wing, pro-Northern party was broken up by the government in part over the issue of violence against the ‘occupation.’
3. North Korea almost certainly had nothing to do with it.
North Korea would be very foolish to attack such a high-profile American target. North Korea, for all its bellicose rhetoric, does not want war. They would lose. But more importantly for the Pyongyang gangster elite that runs the country, they would lose all their illicit privileges. Not only that, they would likely be hunted down by angry North Koreans, as happened to Gaddafi and Ceaușescu, or be pulled before post-unification courts. And South Korea has still has the death penalty, likely for this very contingency.
The South Korean-US alliance has whether ups-and-downs for decades. If Kim is the lone wolf he seems to be, the only real fall-out will likely be greater security on US officials in Korea. That will make it harder for regular South Koreans to meet them – and that is a shame.