Now ROK perceptions of the United States and the U.S.-ROK alliance are strongly positive, but as the history has shown, this can easily change. Wide varieties of incidents in the past have provoked rampant anti-Americanism, and it is unlikely that there will be no future controversial incidents involving U.S. service members. Also, even when the overall perception of the United States is positive in South Korea, there exists the possibility of individual acts of violence against Americans by South Korean citizens. One prominent recent example is the March 5, 2015 knife attack against U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert. Kim Ki-Jong, a South Korean activist, attacked Ambassador Lippert while screaming that the two Koreas should be united, and he later claimed his act was a protest against U.S.-ROK joint military exercises.[i] In the aftermath of the attack, Ambassador Lippert took great efforts to show the strength of the alliance, even after the attack against him, sending a twitter message soon after the incident saying “Doing well and in great spirits… Will be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance!”[ii] In South Korea, most Koreans reacted by showing tremendous support for Ambassador Lippert and the U.S.-ROK relationship, and ROK President Park visited Lippert in the hospital. However, a counter-narrative saw the outpouring of support for Lippert and the U.S. as crass political move by conservative ROK politicians to attack critics as “pro-North Korean,” and to increase domestic support for the U.S.-ROK alliance.[iii]
The fact that a vicious attack against a U.S. ambassador did not threaten the U.S.-ROK alliance is a testament to its strength, but it would be naïve to assume that incidents in the future would not. If Kim Ki-Jong had killed Lippert in his attack, it is hard to imagine that the outcome would have been the same, or that it would not have negatively affected the alliance. Ambassador Lippert’s positive response in the aftermath of the attack is a great testament to his personal character and the power of his diplomacy. To maintain the strength of the alliance in the future, it will require adroit diplomacy, such as that shown by Lippert, or by President Park in the aftermath of the attack. It will also require a strong narrative for both the U.S. and ROK public that allows people of both nations to understand each other and to see the alliance as mutually beneficial rather than as a form of exploitation or parasitism. This narrative should focus on shared interests as well as shared democratic and social values, and should come from both official and unofficial sources in the United States and in the ROK.
[i] Choe Sang-hun and Michael D. Shear, “Mark Lippert, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Is Hospitalized After Attack,” New York Times, March 4, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/05/world/asia/us-ambassador-to-south-korea-hospitalized-after-attack.html
[iii] Choe Sang-hun, “South Koreans Divided on Reactions to Knife Attack on U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/world/asia/south-korea-split-over-how-to-react-to-attack-on-us-ambassador-mark-lippert.html?_r=0