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South Korea probes US envoy attacker's links with North Korea

South Korean police have launched an investigation into possible connections between a knife attack on the US ambassador in Seoul and the assailant's links to North Korea. He could face charges for attempted murder.

"We are investigating whether there is any connection between the suspect's visits to North Korea and the crime committed against the US ambassador," police chief Yun Myung-sung told reporters on Friday in Seoul.

A 55-year-old Korean identified as

Kim Ki-jong attacked US-ambassador Mark Lippert with a paring knife

on Thursday at a forum discussing Korean reunification. The assailant was a member of the pro-unification group hosting the event.

Investigators established that Kim had made seven visits to North Korea between 1999 and 2007 and that he even tried to erect a memorial to Kim Jong-Il in the South Korean capital Seoul after the late North Korean dictator's death.

North Korean state media described the assault on the US envoy in Seoul as a "just punishment" and a "valid expression of resistance" to ongoing US-South Korean joint military exercises. The suspect himself told the police his attack on Lippert was meant as a protest against these military drills, stating that they ruined efforts for reconciliation between the divided Koreas.

When he was asked whether he had acted on orders from North Korea, Kim replied: "No, nothing like that." He called the question "outrageous," claiming that he had never even visited the North.

According to the police, the suspect had a long history of violent protests. In 2010, he tried to attack the Japanese ambassador to South Korea by throwing a piece of concrete. Most recently, Kim was under investigation by Seoul prosecutors after allegedly assaulting at least one public employee at a concert in January.

Safety worries in Seoul

Police were planning to request a warrant for Kim's formal arrest. Potential charges include attempted murder, assaulting a foreign envoy and violating a South Korean law that bars praise or assistance to North Korea, police chief Yun Myung-sung told reporters on Friday.

Doctors at the hospital in Seoul where the US ambassador underwent surgery after the knife assault said that Mark Lippert was recovering well. He needed 80 stitches after his face was slashed, and a cut to his left hand damaged the nerves of his little finger.

The attack also raised safety worries in a city with a reputation as a relatively low-risk diplomatic posting, in spite of regular threats of war from North Korea.

das/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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