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Hither and Yon

Friend or foe? Attacks on U.S. ambassadors in safe neighborhoods

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Incredibly, crackpots on the left, quick to echo any line from North Korea, compare the attack on U.S. ambassador Mark Lippert to the assassination of Hirobumi Ito, Japanese resident-general of Korea in the early days of the Japanese colonial era. I’ve received messages to that effect from some nut in the U.S. who regurgitates whatever he reads or hears from Pyongyang, and I’ve heard others expressing much the same view.
As all Koreans know, Ahn Jung-geun shot Ito on a railway platform in Harbin in 1909. The Japanese are offended by the hero status accorded the killer of a man they remember as Japan’s first prime minister, but his legacy as a symbol of Korean outrage endures in memorials on Namsan in central Seoul and also in the Harbin station.
As I told the idiot who likened the slashing of Lippert to the assassination of Ito, I doubted if most Koreans would agree with the comparison. An outpouring of sympathy for Ambassador Lippert has drowned out foolish rhetoric from Pyongyang in praise of his “deserved punishment” while he assumes something like hero status. The would-be assassin may have wanted to dramatize his protest against ongoing U.S.-South Korean war games, but if anything the episode seems likely to tighten the U.S.-Korean bond. Whatever the issues, Lippert now receives unreserved sympathy.
U.S. Ambassador , FYI, Japan Times, EXTRA, Hodo-bu Hongo reports, image photos, Sept. 2, 2009. MIURA PHOTO.If the Ito-Ahn comparison seems ridiculous, the attack on Lippert does conjure memories of another brutal slashing of an American ambassador.
More than half a century ago, in March 1964, a young Japanese zealot knifed the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Edwin O. Reischauer, in the thigh at the gate of the American embassy in Tokyo. The wound was considerably more serious than that inflicted on Lippert. Reischauer, a renowned Harvard scholar, remembered in Korea for having collaborated on a system for the Romanization or transliteration of Hangul script, was saved by blood transfusions.
The response to the attack on Reischauer bore certain similarities to that on Lippert. Prime Minister Ikeda went on television expressing his ”deepest regrets” while Reischauer, whose wife was Japanese, tried to maintain a sense of humor. All the transfusions from Japanese donors, he said from his hospital room, made him feel “like a mixed-blood child.” Yes, like Lippert, he made a “rapid recovery” — until the transfusions were diagnosed as having infected him with hepatitis C, a progressive liver disease that cost him his life many years later.
The attacks on Lippert and Reischauer also evoke another comparison. Tokyo and Seoul seem like such safe places. Enraged mobs over the years have shouted anti-American epithets over mega-loudspeakers in both capitals, but as a spectator you could be sure you were in no danger. Generally protesters were glad to stop shouting long enough to answer questions.
Lippert’s background as a former senior Pentagon official with military experience in Iraq might seem to make him a potential target, but no one imagined he had reason to fear as he ventured from the official residence almost behind the Sejong Center for Performing Arts, sometimes accompanied by his wife, new-born baby and dog. The U.S. military command might order America’s 28,500 troops to stay far away from protests, but rows of police buses dispatched to hold the demonstrators in check confirmed the sense of security. By now we’ve become so used to seeing them that many people tend to ignore them as much as the rhetoric from North Korea.
If North Korean polemics against “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have seemed a little more strident than usual, the threats of reprisals against South Korea and attacks against the U.S. are not taken too seriously by those who’ve heard it all before. Still, the attack on Lippert was so unexpected that you have to worry about another much graver event. Is there any real chance that North Korea could make good on some of its threats — or stage incidents similar to the attack on the Cheonan five years ago this month that cost the lives of 46 South Korean sailors?
As for Lippert, South Korean plastic surgery experts will be eager to provide the most expert treatment on the cuts on his face and hands. They’re famous, after all, for removing obtrusive chins, accentuating cheek bones and bobbing noses. If they’re not able to eliminate all signs of the cut, which required 80 stitches to sew up, he won’t really be disfigured. Rather, the long thin scar on his check will be a badge of honor.
That’s not exactly what his assailant had in mind during war games that are by now an annual ritual. The wounds inflicted on the ambassador serve as a powerful reminder of why thousands of U.S. troops, including marines based in Japan, are storming beaches and firing weapons at ranges not far from the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War.
Columnist Donald Kirk has covered protest and military exercises in both Korea and Japan for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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