SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s tough-speaking liberal opposition leader, Lee Jae-myung, was stabbed in the neck by an unidentified knife-wielding man during a visit Tuesday to the southeastern city of Busan, police said.
Lee, 59 and the head of the main opposition Democratic Party, was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. Police and emergency officials said he was conscious and wasn’t in critical condition, but his exact status was unknown.
The attack happened when Lee walked through a crowd of journalists and others after finishing a tour of the site of a new airport in Busan. The attacker, posing as a supporter, approached Lee, saying he wanted to get his autograph, and then stabbed Lee in the neck with a knife, according to Busan police.
Lee slumped to the ground, where a person pressed a handkerchief to his neck to stop the bleeding. A witness, Jin Jeong-hwa, told YTN television that Lee bled a lot.
Videos circulated on social media showed the suspect, wearing a paper crown reading “I’m Lee Jae-myung,” being chased and tackled by several people.
Police said officers arrested the man on the spot. During questioning, he refused to identify himself or say why he attacked Lee, according to Yonhap news agency.
Lee’s Democratic Party called the incident “a terrorist attack on Lee and a serious threat to democracy.” It called on police to make a through, swift investigation of the incident.
Party spokesperson Kwon Chil-seung told reporters at Pusan National University Hospital that Lee’s jugular vein was believed to have been damaged and there was concern over the large amount of bleeding. He said Lee was being airlifted to a hospital in Seoul for surgery.
Hospital officials would not comment on Lee’s condition.
President Yoon Suk Yeol expressed deep concern about Lee’s health and ordered authorities to investigate the attack, saying such violence would not be tolerated, according to Yoon’s office.
Lee lost the 2022 presidential election to Yoon by 0.7 percentage point, the narrowest margin ever recorded in a South Korean presidential election.
Since his election defeat, Lee has been a harsh critic of Yoon’s major policies. Last year, Lee launched a 24-day hunger strike to protest what he called Yoon’s failure to oppose Japan’s release of treated radioactive wastewater from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power, his mishandling of the country’s post-pandemic economy and his hardline policies on North Korea.
Lee faces an array of corruption allegations, including one that he provided unlawful favors to a private investor that reaped huge profits from a dubious housing project in the city of Seongnam, where Lee was mayor for a decade until 2018. Lee has denied legal wrongdoing and accused Yoon’s government of pushing a political vendetta.
Last September, a South Korean court denied an arrest warrant for Lee over the allegations, saying there wasn’t a clear risk that he would destroy evidence. The court hearing was arranged after South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament voted to lift Lee’s immunity to arrest, a move that reflected growing divisions within his Democratic Party over his legal troubles.
Lee, who served as governor of Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul, is known for his outspoken style. His supporters see him as an anti-elitist hero who could reform establishment politics, eradicate corruption and solve growing economic inequality. Critics view him as a dangerous populist who relies on stoking divisions and demonizing his conservative opponents.
Lee is also known for his self-made success story. He worked in a factory as a boy, an experience that left him with an arm disability. He later made his own way through school and passed the country’s notoriously difficult bar exam to work as a human rights lawyer.
Lee joined a predecessor of the Democratic Party in 2005. Previously a political outsider, he rose sharply amid public anger over an explosive 2016-17 corruption scandal that eventually led to the ouster of then conservative President Park Geun-hye.