In his next article devoted to parliamentary parties in South Korea, the author wanted to write about the problems within the opposition Toburo Democratic Party, where dissatisfaction with its leader Lee Jae-myung is growing, and former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon with his supporters have seriously decided to leave the party. But an incident occurred that mixed up all the cards and required urgent coverage.
On January 2 at 10:27 a.m., Chairman Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck while he was inspecting the construction site of a new airport on Gadeok Island during his visit to Busan.
Based on the information received, the attacker, posing as a supporter and following Lee Jae-myung for some time (he was at least near the event site Lee attended in Busan last month), approached him, saying he wanted to get his autograph, and then stabbed him on the left side of the neck with a 17-centimeter-long camping knife purchased online and modified for the attack, hidden in poster paper. A video uploaded to YouTube shows the suspect waiting for Lee in the crowd and wearing a paper crown reading “I’m Lee Jae-myung”.
But for some reason there was no ambulance on site and it arrived only 20 minutes after the attack. Party members and emergency personnel tried to help Lee, after which the Chairman was taken to Busan National University Hospital, provided with emergency treatment and then transported by helicopter to Seoul National University Hospital. Doctors say that the 1.4 centimeter laceration is not life-threatening, but the wound may start to bleed because the blade damaged the jugular vein but fortunately missed the carotid artery, and otherwise Lee could have immediately died at the scene.
On January 4, Lee was transferred from the intensive care unit (ICU) to the general ward. “He is recovering smoothly after the surgery, but he requires continued observation due to concerns over additional infection and postoperative complications due to his injury,” said Surgeon Min Seung-kee, who operated on the politician.
According to the police, some 50 police officers had been dispatched and put on standby nearby, but none of them were able to prevent the attack. However, either a populist politician is in the midst of a crowd and ensuring his safety becomes problematic, or he is well guarded, but then there is a distance between the protected person and the crowd.
The attacker was arrested at the scene and admitted that it was a deliberate attack, but at the time of writing this article, he did not voice the motives for his attack. However, the police identified him as a man born in 1957 and surnamed Kim (additional permission is required to disclose full information about the suspect). It is known that he is a native of Chungcheong Province (which is not the electoral base of any particular party), works in the real estate industry and seems to be a person with conservative views. He was reportedly a member of the Democratic Party, but before that, he allegedly belonged to the People Power Party.
The country’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office has constituted a special investigation team at the Busan District Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the case.
On January 3, police sought an arrest warrant (executed the next day) for the suspect in the attempted murder and sent officers to search Kim’s residence and his realtor’s office in Asan and seized his PC, laptop, a knife sharpener and other evidence. Police are also looking into whether Kim belonged to a particular political party, and have sent inquiries to both Democrats and Conservatives.
All political forces in the Republic of Korea expressed indignation on this occasion, while President Yoon Suk Yeol called the attack an act of terrorism, according to his spokesman, expressing deep concern over Lee’s safety and ordering police and relevant authorities to quickly establish the facts and make every effort to immediately transport Lee to a hospital and provide him with treatment.
“Terrorism, in whatever form, is more than just an act of harm or crime against the victim; it suppresses human freedom and is an enemy to everyone that seeks a free society. This is the enemy of liberal democracy,” the South Korean President said on January 3. “We should all comfort the victim with one mind and, with the same mind, respond firmly. Let us all wish for Chairman Lee Jae-myung’s speedy recovery,” Yoon Suk Yeol added.
The Democratic Party’s Supreme Council has called for a thorough investigation into the attack on Lee Jae-myung, but for now, both Democrats and Conservatives are urging their flock to refrain from conspiracy theories. Interim DP leader Hong Ihk-pyo urged party members “not to be misled and to avoid political interpretations or any mention of the suspect in connection with the incident other than wishing Lee a speedy recovery. The conservative Joongang Ilbo published an editorial entitled “Shame on Conspiracy Theories and Hate Speech.”
However, YouTube quickly became inundated with hypotheses, rumors and conspiracy theories following the attempted murder. Conservatives have characterized the attack as a stunt carefully orchestrated by Lee himself, while Democrats argued that the attack was orchestrated by Yoon Suk Yeol’s regime. Much suspicion has been raised as to why the DP leader had to be rushed to Seoul National University Hospital by helicopter from Busan despite an inch-long scratch on his neck. Some blamed fake news for the attack because it incites hatred, or lone extremists, while some pointed to shortcomings in the system of protecting politicians that is not designed for lone individuals. And almost all the articles suggested that “the authorities must get to the root of the matter and announce the results in a transparent manner,” and also take comprehensive and proactive measures to prevent a recurrence of the recent violence.
In South Korea, it is customary to use political violence; it is enough to recall the recent attempt on former DP leader Song Young-gil’s life in 2022, who was hit with a hammer, or Park Geun-hye’s life in 2006, who was attacked by a man with a box cutter who tried to slice her face. This also includes the attempt on US Ambassador Mark Lippert’s life, where the weapon was a kitchen knife. Note that in the case of Park and Song, the attacker was not from the opposing camp, but from among the opposition within the camp. Park was attacked by a representative of the more radical conservatives, while Song was attacked by a representative of the more radical democrats from Lee Jae-myung’s fan club.
It is clear that the assassination attempt has given rise to conspiracy speculations, but neither the author nor the investigation have yet any grounds to accuse a specific party based on the available evidence. However, you should pay attention to the following things:
First, the attempt on Lee’s life clearly made him a victim and an object of compassion. All other numerous problems within the Democratic Party fade into the background. In addition, that part of the Democrats who support the Chairman will strengthen their faith in him because for them, it will look like an assassination attempt by his political opponents. Passions are running high, and even if the attacker turns out to be just a lone conservative, this will still cause the proper level of hysteria and accusations against Yoon Suk Yeol. Democrats will begin to demand that the truth be revealed.
Secondly, Lee will be in the hospital for some time and then undergo rehabilitation. Summoning a sick person for hours-long interrogations is definitely a bad move. And the investigation most likely will not have time to present Lee Jae-myung with a third arrest warrant for the next set of cases in which he is investigated. Meanwhile, if Lee Jae-myung is not imprisoned before the elections, the Democrats have a chance to win them, at least due to protest sentiments and the fact that the confrontation between Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk Yeol has always been not a battle of ratings, but of anti-ratings since the presidential elections.
Thirdly, the assassination attempt strengthened the image of Lee Jae-myung as an opposition leader whom opponents are trying to deal with. And in this regard, Conservatives will have to suspend the investigation not for ethical, but for political reasons.
Fourthly, the assassination attempt also paused some political processes. Former Democratic Party leader and ex-Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, for instance, had planned to launch a new party as early as this week but reportedly decided to put it off amid concerns that it would trigger a backlash. Former ruling party leader Lee Jun-seok is also likely to adjust his plan as the public focus has shifted toward Lee’s recovery and his influence on the elections. More importantly, the anti-Lee faction within the Democratic Party, which had planned to announce their ultimatum to Lee Jae-myung calling on him to resign, did not do so.
So, does this mean that we should view this not only as an assassination attempt, but also as a provocation? Some politicians periodically spoke about his failed attempts on his own life, which increased the number of his followers. The five corpses around Lee Jae-myung, thanks to which he has not yet been brought to account, also serve as indirect evidence. However, the incident that occurred was too risky for the Chairman: finding a competent performer who could stab him in the crowd with a lot of blood and with minimal risk to his life is a very non-trivial task. And in general, what seems to be complex multi-pass combinations are in fact most often coincidences and the ability to present these coincidences as part of a “cunning plan”: we do not retreat, but lure the enemy deep into the territory.
And therefore, no matter how paradoxical it may sound, the unsuccessful attempt on Lee Jae-myung’s life, which he survived, makes him the main beneficiary because it evokes compassion for him, shifts the focus from problems within the Democratic Party to the wound on the neck of its leader and allows him to accuse his political opponents, both external and internal, of possible use of violence.
At this point, the author, on the one hand, stops his reasoning in anticipation of the results, and on the other hand, moves on to the general problems of the Democrat camp. I just hope that the authorities will more intensely protect leading politicians after the incident and that there will be no more assassination attempts.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.