SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert was slashed in the face and hands Thursday morning by an attacker armed with a razor blade, just days after a top State Department official’s comments caused outrage throughout this close Asian ally.
“We strongly condemn this act of violence,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “The ambassador is being treated at a local hospital. His injuries are not life threatening.”
The State Department confirmed the incident and said embassy officials in Seoul were working with local law enforcement in response.
Mr. Lippert, 42, was giving a speech at an academic conference on the reunification of North and South Korea when he was slashed in the face and hand by a man wielding a razor-like weapon, reported Yonhap, South Korea’s official news agency.
Photos from Yonhap show Mr. Lippert with blood on his hand and holding his face. Yonhap reported that he was attacked by an armed man who shouted, “No to war training!” before attacking him.
The suspect, described as being in his 50s or 60s and identified by YTN television network as Kim Ki-jong, was in custody and being questioned by police. YTN also reported that he’d screamed during the attack that “South and North Korea should be reunified.”
A police official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the suspect threw a piece of concrete in 2010 at the Japanese ambassador in Seoul, hitting his secretary. He received a three-year suspended prison term.
A U.S. official said there was no evidence of terrorism involvement, but that authorities were exploring a range of possible motives for the attack.
President Obama called Mr. Lippert to wish him a speedy recovery, U.S. officials said.
South Korea enjoys good relations with the U.S. and jointly guards the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, where some 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
Tensions have run high between South and North Korea this week following the start of annual joint military exercises being carried out between the two nations.
There was speculation Thursday over whether such tension may have been tied to the attack on Mr. Lippert.
However, there were also concerns about possible South Korean anger against American diplomats after recent comments by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Politics Wendy Sherman.
Ms. Sherman create outrage across South Korea when she suggested last week that South Korean demands for reparations and an apology from Japan over the World War II-era enslavement of South Korean women, many for sex, were simply political.
“It is not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy … But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress,” she was quoted as saying.
Lawmakers and political leaders expressed outraged at Ms. Sherman’s comments, suggesting they were insensitive and ignored the cultural pain many South Koreans feel over the issue involving World War II-era Japan, which also had ruled Korea since 1910.
The attack occurred just one day after The Washington Times finished its own conference with media and thought leaders on the issue of Korean reunification. Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Chris Hill, the former U.S. chief of six-party talks with Pyongyang, was among the speakers.
He predicted the fall of North Korea’s government was inevitable, opening the door one day for reunification, and urged the U.S. to carefully remain in full support if its ally South Korea as it pursued increment steps toward piece with its adversary to the north.
Mr. Lippert joined the Obama administration in 2009 as chief of staff to the White House national security council. He later returned to active duty in the Navy, and then served as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel before being nominated by President Obama to the ambassador’s post in May 2014.
Mr. Lippert’s attack once again raises questions about the safety of U.S. diplomats abroad, though violence against them in East Asia has been rare.
Diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. embassy in Yemen in February following a violent uprising of Shia Houthi rebels that led to the resignation of that country’s president. In 2012, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three others, were killed in Benghazi in a terrorist attack on a diplomatic compound.
• Dave Boyer and Jennifer Pompi contributed to this report.