The Semiotics of Face Slashing in South Korea

US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was slashed in the face by a radical protestor, Kim Ki Jong, opposed to US interference in Korean politics. “North and South Korea must be united” he shouted, before being taken down by security.

Mr. Kim claimed that he attacked Ambassador Lippert to protest the annual US-Korea “Foal Eagle” war games. These annual live fire war games, the largest on the planet, deploy 200,000 troops, entire aircraft carrier groups, rehearse amphibious landings. Their sheet scope and firepower invariably raise tensions between the Koreas, interfering with efforts for dialogue, de-escalation, and reunification.

Despite a security detail of 29 staff, the costumed radical traditionalist, well known to the police, was able to approach the ambassador and cut his face, leaving a long, deep gash requiring 80 stitches, and catapulting garish images of a horrified ambassador staunching his bloody face all over the world.

This act was considered a huge loss of face for Koreans, with many Koreans sending apologies and self-recriminations to the ambassador, others remonstrating, protesting, or performing on the streets. Highlighting the exquisite contradictions of Korea-US relations, a well-wisher brought over dog meat–for its restorative properties–for the injured dog-loving envoy, signaling tone deaf generosity, attentive wishes for healing, and unconscious enmity. Even more to the last point, traditional folk superstition traditionally requires the ingestion of kindred human flesh.

The government claimed it was an assault on Korean-American relations, and has charged the assailant with attempted murder, assault, and possibly violations of the National Security Law. They have also implied that it was a North Korean plot (the perpetrator owned a copy of Kim Jong-Il’s text on film criticism, and had visited North Korea with official permission on 7 occasions for tree-planting). If the ruling party has its way, this incident will also be the pretext for passing a draconian anti-terror law, hounding opposition as pro-North, and in a stunning non sequitur, implementing the controversial THAAD missile defense system that will escalate tensions with China.

Passions run high, gashes run deep on the Korean peninsula, as the friendly, approachable, former-intelligence-officer-turned-ambassador discovered at the breakfast meeting for reunification where he was to be a speaker.

Underneath the Ambassador’s convivial PR campaigns: blogging and tweeting in Korean, native-costumed events, dog walking in public; beneath the seemingly placid and amicable waters of South Korean-American relations, deeper currents and riptides course, sometimes violently, sometimes explosively, exposing the hidden turbulence and violence of unresolved historic trauma and rage.

Historical Scars: The Colonial Vortex

A little history is informative: Korea was once one of the most isolationist countries in the world. Referred to as the “hermit Kingdom”, it refused to trade or interact with the US, European, or Japanese colonial powers, believing that they had nothing good to offer it, and that there was nothing to be gained by interacting with foreign barbarians, “wild animals that crave only material goods, totally ignorant of any human morality or decency.”

So in 1866, when the heavily armed USS General Sherman nudged up the banks of the Taedong River to force open relations with Corea, the 500 year old Chosun Dynasty, held its knees together tightly and held steadfast in its isolationist virtue. The Sherman defied orders to leave, took hostages, opened fire, and was in turn attacked and burned to the ground; its crew massacred. The first round of US gunboat diplomacy ended in a charred fiasco.

Never one to take “No” as an answer, the US then returned in 1871 with a full scale marine invasion: a flotilla of 5 warships, and two dozen supporting vessels, 650 landing troops, a veritable “Little War with the Heathen”.   This time the Koreans were outmatched: Korean defenders resisted with everything they had, but fighting hand-to-hand, tooth and nail, they were massacred to the last man.   Eventually, a boilerplate US-Korea, “friendship” treaty, larded with the saccharine rhetoric of mutual amity, was concluded in 1882.

The jubilant Commodore Shufeldt, the US signatory wrote, in purple, orientalist prose, “The pacific is the ocean bride of America—China, Japan & Korea–…are the bridesmaids. ….on this ocean, the East and the West have thus come together, reaching the point where search for Empire ceases and human power attains its climax.”

On Shufeldt’s shuddering “nuptial couch,..where all the wealth of the orient will be brought to celebrate the wedding….as the “bridegroom cometh”, no one thought to ask the bride or the bridesmaids what the “nuptial couch” was like for them.

Still, the treaties were signed and ratified, at arm’s-length and holding noses, and after a short honeymoon period, realpolitik would trump mutual amity, and Korea would be pawned over to the Japanese for the full-scale ravaging of colonization.

History, they say, is a mistress with many secret vaults; the waters of the pacific run deep, holding its memories and resentments, in eddies, vortexes and whirlpools. The good Ambassador was sucked unknowingly into a violent maelstrom.

Gashes in the Body Politic

Several other gashes are relevant in recent history.

Unparalled Division

In August 1945, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, two young U.S. Army colonels, went into a room, armed with a National Geographic map, a ruler, and a directive, and slashed the county into two pieces along the 38th parallel. With that act, 1300 years of a continuous unified dynastic geography came to an abrupt end.

This partition would result, first, in a civil war, finally erupting into a hot war in 1950 that would leave the country partitioned to this day. But even before that, scholars would say that the writing was on the wall: the Americans dug themselves in in the south, and erected obstacles for the dissolution of this temporary state of affairs, first by preventing nationwide elections, installing or supporting a series of belligerent dictators, refusing to evacuate after the war (as did the Chinese), steadfastly refusing requests for a non-aggression pact, and by holding the country on a very short, tight, subjugated cold war leash.

The Brutal Puppet: Vichy on the Han

In particular: when the country was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, the Koreans rushed to recover self-governance. The Korean People’s Republic was formed, anchored in thousands of popular people’s committees of resistance and self-governance: these were popular, democratic, nationalist, and socialist in orientation, and they started to effectively administer the country, redistributing property and collectivizing workplaces. The US Army Military Government in Korea took an immediate exception to this state of affairs, noting that Korea had the infrastructure and framework that would allow “communism to get off to a better start than anywhere else in world”. The response was to outlaw the people’s committees and the KPR, and imprison its leaders. Just for good measure, they also put back in place the entire apparatus of Japanese colonial rule: the collaborators, the constabulary forces, the prison guards, the army, judges, prosecutors, bureaucrats: a government of the venal, the brutal, the vicious, and the corrupt. They also crushed popular resistance with tanks and bayonets—in one instance during the October 1946 revolt—killing 300, wounding 26,000 and arresting 15,000; and prevented the holding of nation-wide elections, as mandated by the conditions of the trusteeship. Instead, against massive protest, they organized elections in the South, installing a puppet, Syngman Rhee, a Princeton-stained sycophant, a man whose main credentials were his rabid anti-communism, his ruthlessness, his obstinacy and his willingness to do the bidding of his Imperial masters.

The psychopathic Rhee was to instigate another type of gash, this time in the literal soil of Korea:

“I can handle the Communists…..With bulldozers we will dig huge excavations and trenches, and fill them with Communists. Then cover them over. And they will really be underground.”

Rhee literally went on to make good on his promise, extirpating “communists” by the tens of thousands in just this manner. Coaxed to identify themselves, in exchange for amnesty, or forced to sign up simply to fill quotas, over two hundred thousand innocents were killed in the Bodo league massacres, lined up and shot in a few short weeks of summer, and dumped into huge trenches dug by excavators exactly as Rhee had proposed, with the US military documenting, and enabling these atrocities. The scale, speed, and scope of these massacres is unparalleled in modern history, placing Syngman Rhee, in contention as one of the worst genocidaires of the 20th century.

These numbers themselves were later dwarfed by the holocaust of the Korean War itself, that Rhee pushed and pulled for—some say instigated– and prolonged, at the behest of the US. By the end of the searing, scorching, genocidal war, five million–one out of five–Koreans were dead, one out of three families separated, the peninsula rendered a veritable moonscape, and the scars of division still fester with a horror so huge that memory itself balks at its charge.

Kwangju: Slashing Bodies

Fast forward three decades, flashing past more US supported dictatorships, and coups, another bright bloody slash: Kwangju.

Disgusted with yet another US-enabled military coup, on May 18th , 1980, hundreds of people took to the streets to demand democratic reforms and the repeal of martial law in Kwangju, a city in south western Korea. 3000 paratroopers from the Special Warfare Command were sent in to quell the demonstration; they indiscrimately began to beat, cut, slash, stab, and shoot demonstrators. Students had their faces flambéed with flamethrowers, women were sliced open with bayonets, soldiers shot, beat, or stomped on protestors until “they looked like a pile of clothes in meat sauce”. Witnessing the massacres, a distraught child hysterically asked her parents, “When is our army coming?”, not understanding that this was the Korean army.   Eventually, overcoming fear and terror, hundreds of thousands of enraged citizens constituted a people’s militia that engaged the soldiers, fighting pitched battles house to house and street to street, driving out the paratroopers and liberating the City on May 21st. The celebration was short-lived, however. The response was the full scale invasion of the 20th Army division, 20,000 elite troops, with Helicopters, Tanks and APC’s, leveling the city, and ending the rebellion. When all was said and done, thousands of civilians were killed, and the population of an entire city terrorized for life. Debate still rages about the degree of complicity of the US government, but the fact remains that the ROK Army, and all its movements were under the control of the US Military (a fact that applies to this day in wartime). If the military terms “chain of command” and “operational control” mean anything, all roads lead to US responsibility for the massacre, denials notwithstanding.   The result was an explosion of anti-US sentiment, with attacks, arson, and occupations of US facilities, culminating in a full scale “suicide” assault on the U.S. ambassador’s residence in 1989.

Slashing the Economy: National Shame

In 1997, South Korea encountered the worst economic crisis since the Korean War. A currency run on Thailand spread through the Asian economies, and hit Korea in November “with the force of a typhoon” rendering it effectively bankrupt. South Korea appealed for financial assistance from the US and the IMF. Korea had always been coddled economically by the US, trotted out as the teacher’s pet of capitalist development in the global cold war lecture circuit, and they were expecting the same special treatment, as they had in 1980, when they had faced a similar crisis.   With the cold war ended, however, so, too did the preferential treatment, and South Korea was opened to the full force and brutality of neoliberal discipline.   Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, dispatched Larry Summers—an economic MacArthur with a penchant for putting his oversized foot in his psychopathic mouth—to enact the hard boot of the reforms. South Korea was forced to slash, cut, restructure and re-size its entire economy. Labor was disciplined, the economy slashed, the Chaebol cut up, the government pared down. Within two months, Korea’s economy fell from 11th to 17th, its GNP from $11,000 to $6600. Overnight, homeless tent cities mushroomed in major cities, prostitution, loan sharking, everyday violence, and suicide exploded. Thousands of children—“IMF orphans”—were abandoned and dumped into orphanages by destitute and despairing parents. “Wall Street won”, proclaimed the US jubilantly. Ordinary Koreans, those with no prior political inclinations, however, simmered at the turn of fortunes, referring to it as “The Day of National Shame”—a reference to the Japanese annexation of Korea. After 5 decades of back-breaking sacrifice and service, their eyes opened for the first time to the precarious nature of their vassal status with the US economy and the global financial system. Those eyes have remained open, wary, and cynical ever since.

Cold Comfort

The most proximal slash/insult has been Wendy Sherman’s pronouncements on Japan-Korea relations. It’s estimated that during the period of colonization, Japan forced some 200,000 women as sex slaves (“comfort women”) to service its troops during its imperial ventures, the majority of them from Korea (along with another one million slave laborers).   The current proto-fascist regime in Japan has refused to acknowledge this historical atrocity, and reneged on prior government statements of apology and wrongdoing.

Frustrated with the lack of harmony between Korea and Japan (the leaders have not had a single summit meeting) to consolidate the Japanese support of the pacific pivot against China and align Korea with Japan, Wendy Sherman, number four at the State Department, waded into this thicket, by proclaiming that the countries needed to move forward, and not get trapped in the past or to vie for “cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy” or appealing to nationalist sentiment.

This unleashed a hail of condemnation by the political class in Korea, already disgusted by current Japanese revisionism and disturbed by US passivity in the matter. Pitched demonstrations broke out in front of the embassy, anti-US and anti-Japanese rhetoric soared, and Ms. Sherman was quietly escorted out of the spotlight. Still, the gash of this humiliation burns bright, itself, enraging Koreans with any sense of history. More important, but unspoken, is that the issue of comfort women is itself a proxy for the longstanding exploitation and humiliation of Korean prostitutes by the U.S. Military, itself a metaphor—going back to 1882—of Korean relations with the US. South Korea itself used military prostitution as an economic strategy to crawl out of poverty, often at the cost of unbelievable suffering and abuse. The murder rape of 1992 of Yun Geum Hi, her death a kind of perverse performance art of imperial subjugation, stands as exhibit A in this regard:

“A Coca Cola bottle penetrating her vagina. An umbrella driven twenty seven centimeters into her rectum…her body and face covered with blood. Powdered detergent covering her face…”

The gashes of empire run deep and bloody.

Cutting to the Chase: The Bluest Eye

Here’s the one last piece of the puzzle:

Graphic and dramatic as it was, Ambassador Lippert is not the only person to get their face violently cut because of the discontent generated from US influence. Thousands of people get their faces sliced open every year in South Korea. The villain is not a knife-wielding psychopath, but a surgeon; the reason is not discontent about US politics as discussed above, but discontent about one’s appearance because of pervasive US cultural influence.

South Korea is the unrivaled, unmatched self-loathing capital of plastic surgery. Every year hundreds of thousands of women go under the knife to cut open their eyelids, re-sculpt their noses, shave their jaw bones, and mutilate their faces all to look more Western or American. (The Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho has made a career of this type of self-hatred). Dozens die under the knife. Young career women work themselves to the bone, eat ramen noodles, starve, scrimp and save so they can afford a plastic surgery. Walk down the streets of Gang Nam, the affluent area south of the Han River, and you will see plastic surgery clinics more numerous than gas stations, nail parlors, or convenience stores. Walk along the boulevards and you will see billboards advertising graphically, the before and after images of young women who have had surgery. (It goes without saying that these people also aspire to western-branded clothes, valorize western foods, spend a fortune learning English (starting in kindergarten), and savage their music, language, culture trying to make it more Western). The noted film director Im Kwon Taek once complained that he could no longer cast a traditional Korean film: there are no longer any young women that look Korean, they have all westernized their features through surgery.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks of symbolic violence—the violence perpetrated through the valorization of certain cultural goods, symbols, tastes, lifestyles endowed with power and status.

Every young Korean who has put clothes pins on her nose, or dyed her hair blond, or glued her eyelids, has imbibed deeply of this symbolic violence. Young women who pine for a Caucasian male, or one who resembles one through surgery have similarly misrecognized the sway of cultural imperialism.

Along with the economic and social violence of the neoliberal capitalist system, this symbolic violence, where people internalize and perpetuate self-mutilation as a means of getting ahead, is part and parcel of South Korean “progress”, and it epitomizes the twisted asymmetry of the Korea—US relationship. In this tightly locked cloacal embrace,–with South Korea at the receiving end of economic, cultural, symbolic violence, surplus violence lingers suddenly and unpredictably everywhere. Self-harm is only a pitiful razor’s edge away.

And in a country where “face”, is everything, where losing face is a social death, and cutting face, allows the continued mis-recognition of the twisted national self, the resulting prosopagnosia signals itself with a sudden slashing, an eruption, a coded message: we may hate ourselves, and we may hate ourselves for hating ourselves, but from time to time, we may remember from whence this hatred stems, and yes, even try to extirpate it.

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at










K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at