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South Korean Opposition Leader Lee Attacked During Busan Visit

South Korean opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung is attended to after being attacked in Busan on Jan. 2, 2024.
South Korean opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung is attended to after being attacked in Busan on Jan. 2, 2024.

South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-Myung was airlifted to a hospital in Seoul Tuesday, hours after he was stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southeastern port city of Busan.

The leader of the Democratic Party was meeting with reporters at the construction site of a new airport when a man approached and asked for an autograph. Videos posted online showed Lee smiling shortly before the man plunged a large knife into the left side of his neck.

A bystander pressed a handkerchief to Lee’s neck to stop the bleeding before he was rushed to Pusan National University Hospital.

Busan, South Korea
Busan, South Korea

A Democratic Party spokesman says Lee was airlifted to Seoul National University Hospital for surgery after doctors expressed concern about potential massive bleeding around his jugular vein.

The spokesman said Lee was conscious after the attack, and health officials and police now say his life is not in danger.

The suspected attacker has been identified as a man in his 60s or 70s. He was wearing a paper crown with Lee’s name printed on it.

Police on the scene immediately arrested the unidentified man and took him away. According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, police in Busan say the suspected attacker has confessed to trying to kill Lee, and will charge the attacker with attempted murder.

The liberal lawmaker narrowly lost the 2022 presidential election to conservative Yoon Suk Yeol. A spokesman for President Yoon Suk Yul quoted the president as saying “this type of violence must never be tolerated under any circumstances. The spokesman says President Yoon has ordered an investigation into the attack and instructed that Lee be given the best care available.

A spokesman for the Democratic Party called the incident “a terrorist attack” and “a serious threat to democracy.”

The 59-year-old Lee is a polarizing figure in South Korean politics. In September, he ended a 24-day hunger strike to protest what he saw as the failed policies of his rival, Yoon.

Last year, South Korean prosecutors indicted Lee on corruption-related charges, including those related to a property development scandal. He avoided jail after a court rejected a warrant for his arrest.

Lee is known for his populist policies. As a former mayor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s most populous province that surrounds Seoul, Lee advocated a form of universal basic income, in which citizens were to receive regular payments of money from the government.

Political violence in South Korea has been rare in recent decades, though attacks have occasionally occurred.

In 2022, Song Young-gil, then Democratic Party leader, was attacked by an elderly man with a hammer while campaigning just two days before the election.

In 2006, former conservative party leader Park Geun-hye, who would later become president, was attacked by a man with a box cutter at a rally in Seoul.

Her father, authoritarian President Park Chung-hee, was assassinated in 1979 by his own chief of the country’s intelligence agency.