Around 7:40 am (KST), the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked at a breakfast event 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 Korea-US military exercise Key Resolve. Not surprisingly, the attack has dominated the South Korea news all day. A few quick points are in order:
Kim does not represent anything like majority opinion in South Korea on the alliance with the US
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 rumour spread in South Korea that US beef was contaminated with mad cow disease, and this catalysed a groundswell of opposition, with candlelight vigils in the streets against a US-Korean free-trade deal. But it was also widely noted that Korean left-wing parties emphasised the American connection to help their political opposition to both a conservative president they disliked (Lee Myung-Bak) and a trade deal their voters opposed.
Similarly, when Roh Moo-Hyun ran for president (2002), he explicitly ran against the US, and that helped him get elected. He did not actually move to expel US forces from 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.
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 supports American ties, 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 Americans. Recently, a radical-left pro-Northern party was broken up by the Government in part over the issue of violence against the 'occupation.'
North Korea almost certainly had nothing to do with it
North Korea would be foolish to attack such a high-profile American target. North Korea, for all its bellicose rhetoric, does not want war. It 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 Ceausescu, or be pulled before post-unification courts. And South Korea has still has the death penalty, likely for this very contingency.
The South Korea-US alliance has weathered 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 for US officials in Korea. That will make it harder for regular South Koreans to meet them, and that is a shame.