South Korean police said Friday they were investigating possible links of the man behind a shocking knife attack on the US ambassador may have had with North Korea, as Seoul voiced disgust at Pyongyang's reaction to the incident.
Kim Ki-Jong, 55, faces possible attempted murder charges after slashing ambassador Mark Lippert with a paring knife in an assault that left the US envoy needing 80 stitches to a deep gash on his face.
The profile painted of Kim is that of a lone assailant with strong nationalist views who saw the United States as one of the main obstacles to the reunification of the divided Korean peninsula.
But it also emerged that he had visited North Korea more than half-a-dozen times between 2006 and 2007, and had tried to erect a memorial to Kim Jong-Il in Seoul after the late North Korean leader's death in 2011.
Any red flags such activities may have raised were only underlined by North Korea's reaction to the attack, which the official KCNA news agency described as "just punishment" and a valid "expression of resistance" to ongoing US-South Korea joint military exercises.
'No evidence yet'
Lippert's case is being handled by a special investigation team comprised of more than 100 prosecutors and police officers, and led by the anti-terrorism bureau of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.
"We are investigating his possible connection with North Korea," Yoon Myung-Soon, the police chief of the central Seoul district where the attack took place, told reporters.
"There is no evidence yet, but we are trying to find out whether he has violated the national security law," Yoon said.
Enacted in 1948 to protect the fledgling South Korean state from infiltration by the communist North, the law prohibits the spoken or written promotion of North Korean ideology, deeming any such activity to be "anti-state" and subject to up to seven years imprisonment.
Kim's home and office in western Seoul were searched early Friday, with documents and computer hard drives removed for further examination, police said.
As he was moved from the police station to court on Friday, Kim was asked if he had acted on the orders of North Korea.
"No, nothing like that," he replied, saying the idea was "outrageous."
Prosecutors said they would pursue a charge of attempted murder, given the premeditated nature of the attack.
Doctors at the hospital where Lippert underwent two-and-a-half hours of surgery said the envoy was recovering well and would have his stitches removed early next week.
There was no irreversible nerve damage to his face, although a cut to his left hand had damaged the nerves of his little finger that could take six months to repair.
Anger at North's response
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, said it was appalled by the North's response to the assault.
"We strongly censure North Korea for giving support to the incident and distorting its nature," said ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-Cheol.
"North Korea should stop its irrational incitement and think seriously about what it should do for the development of inter-Korean relations and true peace on the Korean peninsula," Lim said.
The public attack on the envoy of South Korea's closest ally was shocking for a country where passionate political protest is common but acts of such extreme violence rare.
There was also a degree of shame and anxiety that a man with a record of violence against foreign envoys had been able to carry out such an assault.
Kim had received a suspended jail sentence in 2010 for hurling a rock at the Japanese ambassador.
"We are ashamed for not being able to prevent such a terrorist attack by a radical nationalist," the English-language JoonAng daily newspaper said in an editorial.
During the assault, Kim screamed a slogan in favour of reunifying the divided Korean peninsula, and later shouted his opposition to the joint US-South Korean military drills that began Monday.
The annual exercises always trigger a surge in tensions with the North and Kim said they were responsible for blocking a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue.