Saturday, March 7, 2015

Politicizing an Attempted Murder

As anyone who has kept up with the news now knows, a few days ago, US Ambassador Mark Lippert, who was scheduled to give a speech at a meeting of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, suffered a knife attack by a man named Kim Ki-jong, a self-proclaimed pro-North Korea activist and leader of a political group called Uri Madang who wants unification on the peninsula.

When he was arrested immediately after the attack on Ambassador Lippert, he claimed that he attacked the ambassador in order to protest the annual joint military exercises – Key Resolve/Foal Eagle – that the United States and South Korea started this week.

Thankfully, the attack on Ambassador Lippert was not life-threatening and he will be discharged from the hospital in a few days.

The only thing that is left to happen in regards to the incident is the inevitable politicization.

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Here's what we know about Mr. Kim.


Although the North Korean government, ever so diplomatic and wise, praised the attack and claimed that the “knife slashes of justice” were “a deserved punishment on war maniac U.S.” and “reflected the South Korean people's protests against the U.S. for driving the Korean peninsula to the brink of war,” there appears to be very little evidence that the attack was actually ordered by the North Korean leadership. In fact, I will go so far as to guess that the North Koreans were not behind it at all.

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So why crow about it? What do the North Koreans have to gain? That, I think, is not the right question. Rather, I think the right question is “What has North Korea to lose?”

Everyone already knows that the North Korea has been under one of the most extensive economic sanctions in the world. Everyone also knows that the North Koreans love to be the center of attention. Every time South Korea and the United States conduct joint military drills, the North Koreans fire rockets into the sea. When the North Koreans' human rights record is challenged at the United Nations, they claim that it is all a conspiracy by hostile forces who are itching for a war on the Korean peninsula. And for good measure, they love to call defectors “scum” among a host of other pleasantries.

In other words, the rogue nation that is known for being unpredictable has become, well, predictable. At this point, the cynic in me also thinks that even the occasional deaths of South Korean military personnel have become an accepted part of the equation when dealing with North Korea. And as such, much of the world has learned to take the South Korean people's lead when it comes to dealing with North Korea's antics – being generally unconcerned.

However, an attack on an American ambassador is new. It has given the North Koreans an additional few hours to be the main topic of discussion in the world's news media. And as the old saying goes, as far as the North Koreans are concerned, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In other words, as soon as people have gotten over the sensational nature of this story, the North Koreans will once again find themselves being ignored.

Seriously, this is how most people react whenever they hear about North Korea
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The inevitable politicization that I mentioned earlier then will apply only to those within South Korea.

An arrest warrant was made for Mr. Kim and he is being charged with attempted murder, violence against, and obstruction of official duty. He himself admitted to having committed “a terrorist attack.” The police are also investigating whether there is any connection between Mr. Kim's visits to North Korea and the attack on the ambassador. As such, it is possible that the South Korean government will attempt to additionally charge him with violating the country's National Security Law.

The South Korean government's actions lack subtlety but they are completely understandable. The attack on Ambassador Lippert was a huge embarrassment to the South Korean government. Although the South Korean government can say that the U.S. Embassy did not make a request for any security for the ambassador’s visit to the event, it still does not change the fact that Ambassador Lippert was being protected by a lone, unarmed South Korean police bodyguard. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Mr. Kim has a history of engaging in violent protests. Even if the lack of security and Mr. Kim's presence at the event can be legitimately explained, fingers will still be (and have been) wagged.

Therefore, the South Korean government is going to make a deliberately big spectacle out of prosecuting Mr. Kim to the full extent of the law. After all, President Park already said that the attack was “an intolerable attack on the South Korean-United States alliance.”

Therein, however, lies the problem. Newly appointed Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo among other lawmakers from the administration and the ruling Saenuri Party have publicly claimed that the attack was orchestrated by pro-North Korean forces (종북 세력) and that the government would conduct a thorough investigation of the matter. Echoing what President Park had already said, they also claimed that they hope that the attack would not damage the South Korean-United States alliance.

Who would have thought that the alliance was that shaky?
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The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Party responded by claiming that attempting to link the attack to pro-North Korean forces is a naked attempt to use the attack as a partisan issue.

Although I very seldom ever have much sympathy for the NPAD Party (not that I find the Saenuri Party that much more likeable), I have to side with the opposition party on this point. Especially when we consider what happened to the United Progressive Party (UPP) late last year, I think the NPAD Party can be forgiven for appearing a tad paranoid.

Considering the difference in size and popularity between the NPAD and United Progressive Parties, it is unlikely that the Saenuri Party would ever attempt to take on the NPAD as aggressively as it did the UPP. However, as President Park has either wittingly or unwittingly done little to nothing to assuage the public's fear of her authoritarian leadership style (see here, here, here, and here), there might be a kernel of reason to the NPAD Party's resentment of the ruling party's attempt to link the attack to pro-North Korean forces.

After all, it is not that difficult for the average voter to associate the NPAD Party as being “pro-North Korean” seeing how the party's leader, Moon Jae-in, who was the party's nominee for president in 2012, once claimed that he would offer no-strings-attached economic aid to North Korea if he were elected president.

As despicable as the Sunshine Policy may be, it is quite another thing entirely to claim that the NPAD Party is pro-North Korean, which the Saenuri Party will try to insinuate to be the case. It would be a classic example of just how craven politics can be.

Until verifiable evidence can be found that proves otherwise, which I find doubtful, I think that it is unwise and dangerous to act on the premise that the attack on Ambassador Lippert was somehow orchestrated by shadowy pro-North Korean forces.

Instead, the government ought to prosecute Mr. Kim based solely on the available evidence – that he seemingly appears to be a deranged man who acted alone. Making other assumptions that are not backed by evidence risks opening a can of worms that nobody ever wants to see.

Reason vs. Emotion
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