South Korea’s opposition leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck on Tuesday by a man who approached him asking for his autograph in Busan.
Lee is now recovering from a two-hour long surgery to remove blood clots and patch up a damaged jugular vein in his neck, a party spokesperson said.
The suspect was arrested at the scene, but the motive behind the attack remains unclear.
Lee is a divisive figure expected to run again for president in 2027
Lee has remained one of the leading figures in the South Korean opposition after losing the 2022 presidential election to conservative Yoon Suk Yeol by less than a percentage point. Since then, Lee has been subjected to investigations by state prosecutors on corruption and other charges. He has denied the charges and went on a three-week hunger strike last year in protest, accusing Yoon of using the legal system to punish his opponents. Lee, who is expected to run for president again in 2027, is a divisive figure in the country. His “progressive supporters consider him a plain-talking champion of the poor,” the New York Times wrote, while his conservative critics “call him a corrupt populist.”
Stabbing brings attention to South Korea’s deepening political polarization
While authorities are yet to determine the suspect’s motive, the stabbing is already being chalked up to Korea’s stark atmosphere of polarization, Segye Ilbo reported, with one politician calling the incident “political terrorism.” The “politics of anger” have come to dominate South Korea, a political commentator told the Korean publication. The country’s deepening polarization is reminiscent of the extreme partisanship in the U.S., one analyst wrote in The Korea Times last year. In a poll of 1,000 Koreans, more than 90% said the most serious conflict in the country was that between conservatives and progressives.
A tight legislative election is expected in April
The attack comes just a few months before Korea’s legislative election on April 10, where a new National Assembly will be chosen. Lee’s party — The Democratic Party of Korea — is tied at 33% with the ruling People Power Party (PPP), according to a recent opinion poll. Sixty percent of survey respondents said the upcoming election was a referendum on the president, while 45% were aligned with Lee’s critical views of the government. The PPP also faces a growing challenge from its former party chair, Lee Jun-Seok, who quit after a power struggle with Yoon to start a new conservative party. The move could torpedo the PPP’s electoral prospects by stealing away young male voters who were drawn to the party by Lee Jun-Seok’s strident anti-feminist stance.