The Attack on a U.S. Ambassador Could Have Been Avoided
By: Scott Stewart | Stratfor.comMarch 13, 2015

On the morning of March 5, 2015, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was preparing to speak at a function hosted by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation. The conference was being held in a banquet room at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, a popular venue situated across the boulevard from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. After entering the room, Lippert took his seat at the head table. While he was exchanging business cards with some of the attendees, an assailant approached him from behind and slashed him in the face with a knife. While the ambassador defended himself, he received a second wound to his wrist. But the attacker was quickly subdued, and Lippert was able to leave the scene on his own, applying pressure to the gash on his face with his good hand before being ushered into a police car and taken to the hospital. His wounds were not life-threatening.
 
According to press reports, the suspect in the case, 55-year-old Kim Ki Jong, screamed "No to war training!" and "North and South Korea should be united!" during the attack. The first statement was likely a reference to Foal Eagle, the eight-week joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise that began March 2. Kim has been identified as a Korean nationalist who is well known to Korean authorities for his past activities. In July 2010 he was arrested for throwing a block of concrete at the Japanese ambassador in Seoul and, after being convicted, received a suspended sentence for the attack. According to The Korea Times, Kim attempted to set himself on fire at another demonstration in 2007.
 
Many are making a big deal over the fact that the police officer who accompanied Lippert at the time of the attack was unarmed. However, this is not unusual: Korean police frequently work without weapons. The security failure in this case was not that the officer was unarmed; it was that he was complacent and did not notice the assailant before he drew his knife and attacked.
 
Unarmed Executive Protection
 
First of all, it is important to recognize that unarmed executive protection details are not uncommon, especially for private security officers providing protection for executives in foreign countries. When I was a diplomatic security special agent helping to provide security for the U.S. secretary of state on trips abroad or for foreign dignitaries visiting the United States, the thought of working unarmed was unimaginable. I conducted many investigations of attacks against U.S. diplomatic interests in places such as Japan where I worked unarmed, but that was different than working a protection detail unarmed.
 
That mindset was shattered when I left the government and began to conduct executive protection in the private sector. Lacking law enforcement authority and diplomatic status, I was not allowed as a foreigner to carry a weapon in most locations. Because of this, I almost always worked without a weapon while abroad. If it was assessed that a visit to a particular country required armed security, trusted local contract security officers who had the proper permits to carry weapons in that country, or in some cases government security personnel, would assist me. I was not alone. Almost all corporate executive protection officers worldwide work with the same limitations, especially when they travel abroad.
 
This is where this week's security weekly intersects with last week's. In situations where I was working unarmed, and in some instances alone, I was forced to rely on my martial arts training. More important, I had to rely heavily on my most important weapons system: my brain. Because of my vulnerability to armed assailants, I had to make sure I did solid protective intelligence and advance work prior to my protectee's visit so that I could identify potential threats and design security measures to mitigate them. Working unarmed also meant that I had to be hyper-vigilant in situations where my protectee was in contact with the public, especially when his or her presence was announced to the press in advance.
 
What was I looking for in those cases? It's simple: demeanor. Studies have shown that in most attacks against a protected individual, the attacker shows some sort of external indication of his intentions prior to launching the attack. Such individuals will often be visibly angry, agitated or abnormally focused. In other words, they behave differently from everyone else in the crowd. Furthermore, in many cases they simply stick out from the crowd because they are not dressed appropriately for the venue. Occasionally, an attacker will exhibit what security professionals call "cover for status" and "cover for action," which is simply when a criminal attempts to fit into a specific environment. Generally speaking, however, such criminals are few and far between. Instead, most would-be assailants will readily stick out to those looking for them.
 
Security personnel who see a person with an alarming demeanor approaching their protectee can either intercept the threatening person before he or she attacks or cover and remove their protectee from the site, depending on the situation. During my career as a private executive protection officer, I intercepted several such individuals. Fortunately for me, they were all mentally-disturbed individuals or angry customers — and none were armed with a 10-inch kitchen knife as was Kim. But even if they had been armed, by identifying them and then getting between them and my protectee, I was at least in a position to take action if needed.
 
Instances in which I had to intercept angry customers or mentally-disturbed individuals before they could get to my protectee were thankfully infrequent. They were also usually separated by hundreds of hours spent at events in which absolutely nothing unusual occurred. To steal a phrase often used to describe the life of soldiers in the trenches during World War I, the career of a protective security officer is best described as long periods of utter boredom punctuated by a few moments of extreme adrenalin and excitement. World War I soldiers often had the warning of an artillery barrage to tell them the enemy was preparing a ground assault, but the warnings given to protective security personnel are much more subtle and can be hard to pick up if the officer has succumbed to boredom. I can testify firsthand that it is very hard to stay alert when you have been bored for so many hours. Because of this, it is very easy for executive protection officers to become complacent and to relax their level of attention and of situational awareness.
 
From the outside, that is what appears to have happened in the Lippert attack. From videos taken at the scene, it is readily apparent that Kim was not dressed appropriately for the meeting at the Sejong center. While the meeting participants were wearing suits and ties, Kim was shabbily dressed and was wearing his outside hat and jacket. He clearly did not belong in the banquet room.

I have not seen any video of Kim prior to the attack, but it is almost certain that he was also exhibiting other demeanor indicators that would suggest he was up to no good. Seeing Kim enter the room and begin to walk toward the ambassador should have been enough to cause the police officer accompanying the ambassador to take action. But he did not, and Kim was allowed to launch his attack. Had Kim been a trained assailant and not merely a disturbed amateur with a kitchen knife, Lippert could easily be dead today.
 
But beyond the issue of complacency, the attack against Lippert was also a failure of protective intelligence. Kim was a known assailant. He had previously attacked a foreign ambassador in Seoul and had been arrested and convicted for that attack. At the very minimum, every officer working on a detail to protect diplomats in South Korea should have been given a photograph and description of Kim so that they could be on the lookout for him. Kim not only had a distinctive appearance but often wore a distinctive cap — worn during the attacks against both the U.S. and the Japanese ambassadors. Demeanor aside, a properly briefed protection officer should have been able to easily recognize Kim as he entered the room based on his photo and distinctive cap.
 
The failures in this case then were not that the officer guarding Lippert was unarmed — Kim launched his attack before being detected, and a gun in a holster on the officer's waist would not have changed that fact. This case was in reality a failure of situational awareness and protective intelligence.
 
Dealing with a suspect armed with a knife when one is unarmed is not fun. It is probable that the protective agent would have been cut during the struggle to subdue and disarm Kim. But had the officer seen and intercepted Kim, he would not have been able to attack Lippert by surprise and the ambassador would have at least had the opportunity to flee or defend himself. I don't know how many bored hours that officer had spent working protection prior to the attack, but it is a shame his moment of excitement had to unfold in such an unfortunate manner.

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