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Knife Attack on South Korean Political Leader May Affect Dynamics of Upcoming Elections

South Korean police say they may file attempted murder charges against a man who seriously slashed the chairwoman of South Korea's main opposition party. The knife attack took place Saturday as campaigning for local elections enters its peak period. Outrage and sympathy over the attack could galvanize voter support for opposition candidates.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has ordered an investigation into what he calls an "intolerable" attack against the country's highest-profile conservative politician.

Park Geun-hye, chairwoman of the main opposition Grand National Party, or GNP, was attending a party rally in Seoul Saturday when the assailant struck.

Park, who had just descended from the stage, suffered an 11-centimeter cut along her jaw that required 60 stitches. Doctors say her life was not in danger. But they say her facial muscles and salivary glands were severed, which will prevent her from speaking or chewing normally for weeks.

The attack comes during a period of intense political campaigning, which began Thursday and is scheduled to end May 31, when South Koreans around the country elect mayors, governors, and other local officials.

Police said the attacker, who was detained at the scene, was an eight-time convict named Ji Choong-ho.

Yang Seung-hahm is a political science professor at Yonsei University. Like many analysts, he believes the attack will influence the elections.

Yang says the incident will turn a widely expected GNP victory into a sweeping and absolute one. Even if it was only the act of one disturbed individual, he says, it is likely to create an impression that social order is breaking down under Uri party leadership.

Other political observers predict the public will react with sympathy and outrage as well as concern, and this will also increase the GNP vote. This would not be the first time Park has received sympathy from voters: her father, former President Park Chung-hee, and her mother were both shot to death by assassins.

These local elections are likely to set the stage for South Korean presidential elections next year, and Park Geun-hye is widely expected to be a candidate in that race.

GNP officials have implied that President Roh's Uri Party played a part in the attack.

GNP Spokesman Lee Gae-jin claims the attack was politically motivated, and says police must find out whether the assailant had any kind of backing.

A member of the Uri party who was shouting slogans against the GNP was also detained by police after the attack. It was clear not whether he will be charged, but his party membership was quickly revoked.

Chung Dong-young, the Uri Party chairman, says violence cannot be tolerated. An Uri spokesman, however, called it "regrettable" that some GNP officials have hinted at Uri involvement in the attack.