July 21, 2024

South Korea’s opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung is recovering in hospital after being stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southern port city of Busan.

A 67-year-old man attacked Lee, 59, with an 18cm knife bought online, police said.

Photographs from the scene showed that the assailant appeared to be wearing a paper crown with Lee’s name on it.

He approached Lee asking for an autograph, then suddenly lunged forward and attacked him, news reports said. The assailant was quickly subdued and arrested at the scene.

Photographs released by Yonhap showed Lee lying on the ground with his eyes closed and people around him pressing a handkerchief against the side of his neck.

Lee was taken first to Pusan National university hospital and then to Seoul National University Hospital where he underwent surgery. Kwon Chil-seung, a party spokesman, said later on Tuesday Lee was in an intensive care unit recovering and conscious.

The attack took place during a question-and-answer session with reporters after a visit to the construction site of a new airport on Gadeok Island, just offshore from Busan.

Map of South Korea showing Seoul and Busan

Born into poverty in the city of Andong, Lee worked in a factory instead of attending middle school, but later qualified as a lawyer and became a civil rights attorney.

As head of the left-leaning Democratic party, Lee lost to conservative Yoon Suk Yeol in a tight presidential race in 2022. Lee is widely expected to run for president again in 2027, and recent polls have indicated that he remains a strong contender.

President Yoon condemned the attack, saying such violence should never be tolerated under any circumstances, according to his office. Yoon also expressed deep concern for Lee, and issued instructions to the relevant local authorities to provide him with the best medical care and for police to investigate the incident.

Lee is currently on trial for alleged bribery stemming from a development project when he was mayor of Seongnam near Seoul. Lee has denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “fiction” and a “political conspiracy”.

Although there are strict restrictions on gun possession and overall violent crime rates are very low, South Korea has a history of political violence involving other types of weapons.

Then conservative opposition party leader Park Geun-hye, who later served as president, was attacked at an event in 2006 with a knife and suffered a gash on her face that required surgery.

A 1980 student uprising in response to the military takeover was met with brutal suppression, culminating in hundreds of deaths and thousands among protesters at the hands of paratroopers and other military units in Gwangju.

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