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Kennedy Threats Add to Tough Stretch for U.S. Diplomats in Asia

On Thursday, the State Department confirmed that U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy -- one of Washington’s best-known and highest-profile diplomats -- had received multiple death threats by phone last month.

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East Asia is generally known as a pretty safe place for U.S. diplomats. But it hasn’t seemed that way lately. Less than two weeks ago, an attacker slashed U.S. ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert in the face and arm, leaving him with serious wounds. And Thursday, the State Department confirmed that U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy — one of Washington’s best-known and highest-profile diplomats — had received multiple death threats by phone last month.

Japanese police are currently investigating several calls threatening to kill Kennedy, who is the daughter of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, made in February by an English-speaking caller, according to Japan’s NTV broadcasting corporation. Similar calls were made to Alfred Magleby, the U.S. consul general in Naha, Okinawa — the small, southern island where about half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are stationed.

“We take any threats to U.S. diplomats seriously,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We take every step possible to protect our personnel. We are working with the Japanese government to ensure the necessary measures are in place.”

So far, both governments have declined to suggest a motivation for the threats. Police are reportedly looking into suspected blackmail but have offered no further details about their investigations.

It may well be that the Kennedy threats, like the Lippert attack, were the isolated action of one individual acting alone. But as in Lippert’s case, it’s possible that the Okinawa calls reflect anger over perceived U.S. imperialism going back decades.

Lippert’s attacker blasted ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills and demanded an end of the division between the two Koreas, which congealed after the second World War as the United States faced off with its communist rivals, China and Russia.

U.S. soldiers have been stationed on Okinawa since the end of World War II, but the United States has come under increasing pressure from Japan to end what many locals see as foreign occupation of sovereign land. Since Kennedy took office in November 2013, she’s been plagued by protests over the United States’ sluggish moves to transfer the Futenma military base to a less populated part of the island. Many Okinawans want it gone entirely.

As the United States again seeks to boost its presence in the region around China, it may find itself having to engage more with fallout from its actions last century – whether in the form of a few angry loners or broad-based diplomatic pressure from one of Washington’s closest allies.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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