SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — A man opposed to the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills attacked the American ambassador in Seoul, slashing his face and arms as he was about to give a speech Thursday morning.
The U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was in stable condition after undergoing more than two hours of surgery and 80 stitches to his face. He will likely remain hospitalized for three to four days, Dr. Jung Nam-shik at Yonsei Severance Hospital said.
Police identified the suspect as Kim Ki-Jong, a 55-year-old man with a history of unpredictable behavior.
In 2010, he received a suspended two-year prison sentence for throwing a piece of concrete at a Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The motive for his attack Thursday? He wanted to an end to the South Korea-U.S. military drills to better North-South relations, police said. The drills are held annually and are met with harsh criticism from North Korea.
North Korea called the stabbing on Lippert as a “righteous attack with a knife,” according to a statement from the country’s official news agency, KCNA. It described the attack as “a punishment,” and that it reflects “anti-U.S. sentiment” in South Korea.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye condemned the incident.
“This incident is not only a physical attack on the U.S. ambassador, but an attack on the South Korea-U.S. alliance and it can never be tolerated.”
Lippert attended the event organized by the Korea Council For Reconciliation and Cooperation, and the suspect in the attack was a member of the council, said local police chief Yoon Myung-seon.
The organization advocates peaceful reunification between the two Koreas. Kim was one of its 181 members, all of whom were invited to the event.
There was no request from the U.S. Embassy for security at the event, Seoul police said. There were three police officers on duty at the entrance and 15 more on standby, police said during a news conference.
The attacker, who was seated at another table, ran to the ambassador’s right side yelling something that sounded like anti-U.S. sentiments.
“When the man jumped on the ambassador, I stood up and jumped on the man and they both fell on the ground,” a witness, Jang Yoon Seok told CNN affiliate YTN. “Luckily I got on top of the man’s back and could press him to the floor. Then others came to hold him on the floor.”
Jang said he later saw the knife on the table, which had a wooden handle and did not look like a sophisticated weapon. Seoul police said a knife, about 10 inches long, was used in the assault and the suspect brought it from home.
Videos showed the suspect pinned on the floor, rolled into a blanket and carried out of the building.
He was heard shouting, “The South Korea-U.S. military drills must stop.”
The joint South Korea-U.S. military drills, which is often criticized by North Korea, began earlier this week.
After the attack, Lippert — clutching his right cheek and holding a bloodied arm — was photographed hurrying out of the Sejong Cultural Institute in central Seoul.
The cut to his face runs from his right cheekbone to his lower jaw and is about 4 inches long and about an inch deep, Dr. Jung said. Fortunately, there were no damages on his facial nerve.
Lippert also suffered five gashes in his left arm and hand, but is not likely have permanent damage on his arm function.
“The ambassador was very calm. People around him were taken back but he was very calm,” said Dr. John Linton. “He was speaking with his doctor on what to do. It was surprising.”
Lippert is a longtime friend and confidant of President Barack Obama, and has been a member of Obama’s inner circle since the President’s time as senator.
Obama called Lippert “to tell him that he and his wife Robyn are in his thoughts and prayers, and to wish him the very best for a speedy recovery,” according to National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Lippert has been close to Obama ever since he arrived in the Senate in 2005. Lippert worked with Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and traveled the world with the then-senator as he garnered the foreign policy experience that helped pave the way for his presidential campaign.
When Obama declared he would run for president in the 2008 race, Lippert was by his side again, and was on the road with the candidate and ultimately served as the chief foreign policy adviser for the Obama campaign.
Obama nominated Lippert to serve as ambassador to South Korea last year.
Thursday afternoon, Lippert tweeted that he was recuperating.
“Doing well & in great spirits! Robyn, Sejun, Grigsby & I – deeply moved by the support!,” he tweeted, referring to his wife, his son and his dog. “Will be back ASAP to advance US-ROK alliance.” He then added in Korean, “Let’s work together.”