SEOUL — Even before he threw out the first pitch for the Doosan Bears at a baseball game in Seoul last weekend — which resulted in a diplomatic strike — Mark Lippert was on a winning streak.
Dressed in a Bears cap and a jersey with his name in Korean on the back, he walked onto the field and introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Mark Lippert, the American ambassador to South Korea,” he said in heavily accented Korean, and the crowd erupted in cheers. “Nice to meet you, baseball fans. I’m feeling good.”
South Korea is the kind of place where it’s still relatively rare for foreigners to speak the local language, meaning taxi drivers compliment their passengers’ fluency if they can say anything more than “hello” in Korean. And ambassadors from the United States, South Korea’s closest ally, always enjoy special status here.
But Lippert’s gestures during the game — which included posing with “chi-mek,” Korean fried chicken and beer, and smooching wife Robyn for the “kiss cam,” their 3-month-old son between them — have particular resonance here.
South Koreans are still horrified and embarrassed about the attack on Lippert early last month, in which a 55-year-old man, said to be a North Korean sympathizer, slashed and stabbed the ambassador while he was at a breakfast forum in central Seoul.
“Ambassador Mark, thank you for showing your healthy and happy look to us,” a South Korean named Cho Seung-jae wrote on Lippert’s Facebook page after the envoy posted photos of himself and his family at the ballgame.
Lippert suffered seven wounds in the attack and spent five days in the hospital, but emerged vowing to continue the “open and friendly” diplomacy that had endeared him to South Koreans in his first six months on the job.
And he is doing exactly that — albeit with a few extra friends. Both he and his wife now have security details, which accompany them to official events as well as during hikes with their basset hound, Grigsby — a celebrity in his own right here — and their baby, who goes by the Korean name Se-jun.
“Fundamentally, things have not changed,” Lippert said this past week in an interview. “I can still go out when I want and where I want, but it’s a little more of a process now. The security guys have to be ready and know where we’re going, but it really hasn’t been an impediment.”
Lippert was slashed along his leg and across his right cheek, within an inch of his carotid artery. He says the scar underneath a skin-colored Band-Aid on his cheek is healing well.
But his arm will take much longer to fully recover. He was stabbed in the left forearm as he reflexively tried to defend himself, the 10-inch-long kitchen knife going straight through his arm. He has a long scar on the top of his arm where the knife went in, and a zigzag one at the exit wound on the underside.
He suffered nerve and tendon damage, and his hand is still numb and its movement restricted, meaning he has trouble gripping and typing. It is expected to take another 10 months or so before he regains full use of his hand.
Since the attack, he has been wearing a space-age skeleton-like contraption that Lippert called “robo-son,” using the Korean word for “hand.” He recently traded his bionic arm attachment for a brace that supports his wrist and also protects it in case he falls or is knocked.
Lippert declined to comment on the reasons for the attack, saying simply, “Let the investigation take place.” His attacker, Kim Ki-jong, has been charged with attempted murder against a foreign envoy and business obstruction.
Appearing in court Thursday, Kim denied trying to murder the ambassador and said he saved people from getting hurt by causing disruptions to the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises that were taking place at the time, Yonhap News Agency reported.
The threat remains real. A Web site associated with North Korea warned this month that Lippert would face a “bigger mishap” than being slashed across the face if he did not stop leveling “laughable” accusations at North Korea regarding human rights and nuclear weapons.
Although Lippert is now less likely to take his 10 p.m. walks around town with Grigsby — not because he’s worried about dangers but because he doesn’t want to keep his heavies at work late into the night — he is still walking the streets of Seoul, chatting with locals and documenting it all on social media.
The irrepressible Lippert regularly tweets in Korean, posting photos of himself and his family and his dog, with explanations written in very simple sentences peppered with grammatical mistakes and almost always ending with multiple exclamation marks. Suspiciously, tweets from Grigsby’s account exhibit the same exuberance.
“He gives us a great opportunity to meet people,” Lippert said of his basset hound, a rare breed here. “People stop to engage the dog and take pictures with him, start a dialogue. It’s fun to practice my Korean and to get these opportunities to have a conversation. And people are very sympathetic towards my awkward Korean,” he laughed.
The fact that the tweets are obviously written by Lippert, rather than by one of his Korean staff members, also endears him to the locals because they can see that he is trying hard to communicate in their language.
However, one thing has changed.
Having been splashed across front pages and television screens in hospital scrubs — which almost fell down in front of photographers — and in sweatpants during his recovery, he now gets recognized everywhere.
Previously, he would wander about in his casual clothes, looking decidedly unambassadorial in this often formally dressed society. “Before, people wouldn’t recognize me. They would just think I was another lost tourist, and that gave me a little bit more anonymity,” he said. “But now I’m a bit more recognizable.”