South Korea’s opposition leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck by a knife-wielding man on Sunday, January 2, 2024, while he was visiting a construction site of a new airport in Busan, the country’s second-largest city. Lee, who leads the Democratic Party, was rushed to a nearby hospital and underwent surgery. He is expected to recover from his injuries.
A shocking assault on a prominent politician
The attack occurred around 11:30 a.m. local time, when Lee was speaking to reporters at the site of the proposed Gimhae New Airport, which has been a contentious issue in the region. A man wearing a black mask and a black jacket approached Lee from behind and stabbed him in the neck with a kitchen knife. The assailant was immediately subdued by Lee’s security guards and arrested by the police.
The motive of the attack is still unclear, but some witnesses said the attacker shouted “Lee Jae-myung, die!” and “Stop the airport construction!” before he stabbed Lee. The police identified the suspect as a 40-year-old man surnamed Kim, who has a history of mental illness and criminal records. Kim reportedly told the police that he was opposed to the airport project and wanted to kill Lee.
The incident shocked the nation, as Lee is one of the most prominent and influential politicians in South Korea. He narrowly lost the presidential election in 2023 to the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, who won by a margin of 0.7 percentage points. Lee has been a vocal critic of Yoon’s administration and has been leading the opposition’s efforts to challenge the government’s policies on various issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and the North Korea nuclear crisis.
A wave of condemnation and support
The stabbing of Lee drew widespread condemnation and support from across the political spectrum and the public. President Yoon expressed his regret and outrage over the attack and ordered a thorough investigation. He also called Lee to offer his sympathy and wished him a speedy recovery. Yoon said he hoped the incident would not affect the political stability and social harmony of the country.
The ruling People Power Party (PPP) also denounced the attack and urged the police to find out the truth behind it. The PPP said it hoped Lee would recover soon and resume his political activities. The PPP also called for a bipartisan cooperation to prevent any recurrence of such violence and to ensure the safety of public figures.
The Democratic Party (DP) strongly condemned the attack and accused the government of failing to protect Lee. The DP said the attack was a result of the political polarization and hatred that have been fueled by the Yoon administration and its supporters. The DP also claimed that Lee had been a target of malicious rumors and false accusations by the pro-government media and prosecutors, who have been investigating him for alleged corruption and abuse of power during his tenure as the mayor of Seongnam, a city near Seoul, from 2010 to 2018. The DP demanded that the government stop its political repression and interference in the judiciary.
Lee’s supporters and fans, who call themselves “Jae-myung soldiers,” gathered outside the hospital where he was treated and held a vigil for his recovery. They also held rallies in various cities and online platforms to express their solidarity and support for Lee. They chanted slogans such as “Lee Jae-myung, fighting!” and “We are with you, Lee Jae-myung!” They also criticized the government and the media for their negative portrayal of Lee and called for a fair and objective investigation of the attack.
A potential impact on the political landscape
The stabbing of Lee has raised questions about its potential impact on the political landscape of South Korea, which has been divided and polarized along ideological and generational lines. Lee has been a popular and charismatic leader among the younger and progressive voters, who have been disillusioned with the conservative and establishment politics. Lee has also been a strong advocate for social justice, welfare, and democracy, and has challenged the status quo and the vested interests in the society.
Some analysts have speculated that the attack could boost Lee’s popularity and sympathy among the public, especially among his core supporters, who may see him as a victim of political persecution and violence. They also suggested that the attack could galvanize the opposition’s unity and momentum to challenge the ruling party and the government in the upcoming local elections in June 2024, which are seen as a crucial test of the public’s confidence and support for the Yoon administration.
However, other analysts have cautioned that the attack could also backfire on Lee and the opposition, if the public perceives them as exploiting the incident for political gain or inciting further conflict and division in the society. They also warned that the attack could trigger a backlash from the conservative and moderate voters, who may see Lee as a radical and divisive figure who has provoked hostility and resentment from his opponents. They also argued that the attack could distract the public’s attention from the pressing issues that the country faces, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recovery, and the North Korea nuclear crisis.