The US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was injured in an attack by a blade-wielding assailant on Thursday (Mar 5) in Seoul, police and television reports said.
The YTN news channel, citing witnesses and police sources, said a man with a blade concealed in his right hand attacked Lippert as he was attending a breakfast function at the Sejong Cultural Institute in central Seoul.
Video footage, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, showed the ambassador being rushed out of the building holding one hand to his bleeding right cheek, with his other hand smeared with blood.
Lippert, 42, was bundled into a police car and rushed to hospital.
Lippert was treated for two hours and then transferred to the prestigious Severance Hospital. Television footage showed him walking into the facility with a bandage covering his lower face and neck.
CONDEMNING THE 'ACT OF VIOLENCE'
The United States condemned the "act of violence" and said that President Barack Obama had spoken with him.
"We can confirm that US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Mark Lippert was assaulted Thursday morning in Seoul while giving a speech. We strongly condemn this act of violence. The Ambassador is being treated at a local hospital. His injuries are not life threatening. Embassy Seoul is coordinating with local law enforcement authorities. We do not have any additional details to share at this time," said a statement issued earlier Thursday by the US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye condemned the "intolerable" assault on the US envoy, saying it was tantamount to an attack on the South Korea-US military alliance. Park, who is currently on a tour of Gulf states, vowed a "thorough investigation," while the foreign ministry said it would beef up security for foreign envoys.
The attack carried echoes of a 2006 assault on President Park Geun-Hye when she was a legislator. A 50-year-old man slashed Park across the face with a blade while she was out campaigning for a local election. He was convicted of attempted murder and jailed for 10 years.
Police identified the attacker as Kim Ki-Jong, 55, and said he was a left-wing nationalist with a previous conviction for hurling a stone at the then Japanese ambassador to Seoul in 2010. District police chief Yoon Myung-Soon said Kim had slashed the ambassador with a 25-centimetre (10-inch) paring knife.
"We have detained him and are investigating the cause of the attack and other circumstances," he said. "We have detained him and are investigating the cause of the attack and other circumstances."
A spokesman for the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, which hosted the breakfast function, apologised for the lack of security at the event.
"This man suddenly jumped out of the audience seat when the breakfast was about to start at the table," the spokesman said. "Other people tried to stop him but the situation unfolded too quickly. The ambassador was injured on the face and sent to hospital."
Security staff and police officers were later seen tackling the assailant, who was dressed in traditional Korean clothes and shouting slogans against joint US-South Korea military exercises.
The annual military drills kicked off earlier this week, triggering a surge in tensions with North Korea. Nearly 30,000 US troops are permanently stationed in South Korea and the US would assume operational command in the event of an armed conflict with the North.
Kim heads an organisation that regularly organises protests against Japanese territorial claims to a group of small islands controlled by South Korea. He also has a blog on which he wrote Tuesday of his opposition to the joint US-South Korea drills, saying they were blocking the resumption of a dialogue between North and South Korea.
Lippert, a former US assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs, took up his post in South Korea in October last year.
He has proved a popular ambassador, tweeting regularly about his life in the capital and setting up a tongue-in-cheek Twitter account for his dog, Grigsby. His wife recently gave birth in Seoul and the couple gave their son a Korean middle name.
He was part of Obama's inner circle during the then senator's rise to the White House, and took on senior roles in national security and defence after the 2008 presidential campaign.