08.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What is the current status of the Lee Jae-myung assassination case?

What is the current status of the Lee Jae-myung assassination case?

We are monitoring the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the South Korean opposition leader, which may have significant political consequences in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections. After the incident, the police quickly assembled a 68-member investigation team to check on approximately 40 individuals, including the suspect who was detained at the scene. The investigations comprised searches of the suspect’s residence, office, vehicle, phone records, and bank transactions.

Chairman’s Health Status

Lee Jae-myung was released from the hospital on Jan. 10, eight days after he was stabbed in the neck. He continued his treatment at home. Upon discharge, he expressed hope that “this incident, which surprised all of us, will serve as a landmark in ending politics of hatred and confrontation and restoring decent politics in which we respect each other and co-exist… We should put an end to warlike politics where we have to kill and eliminate opponents.”

Lee expressed his gratitude to the police, medical personnel, and first responders who aided him in Busan and Seoul. He also vowed to dedicate the remainder of his life to serving the nation.

The rapid recovery has led to conspiracy theories on conservative YouTube channels. However, there is a legitimate argument against the idea of a staged assassination attempt. The police found a white shirt with bloodstains that provides insight into how the suspect carried out the attack. The victim was wearing the shirt at the time of the incident, and it was later found by the police in medical waste that was about to be disposed of. The collar of the shirt had a hole caused by a knife that pierced it, creating a 1.5 cm hole. The knife also caused a 1.4 cm deep wound on Lee’s neck, damaging the internal jugular vein by 9 mm. Had the collar not softened the blow, Lee Jae Myung’s wound would have been fatal.

Furthermore, some doctors and medical organizations have raised concerns about Lee Jae-myung’s treatment, suggesting that it may have been preferential. They argue that, given the severity of Lee’s injuries and the fact that Busan National University Hospital was capable of performing surgery, the use of a rescue helicopter was excessive. It appears that Lee was only airlifted to Seoul National University Hospital at the request of his family, who believed that treatment in the capital would be superior to that in Busan. Yeo Han-sol, who is in charge of emergency medical care at Sokcho Medical Center, said, “I want to ask whether such a helicopter can be mobilized upon the request of an ordinary citizen under the same circumstances.”

The doctors referenced a briefing from DPK lawmaker Jung Chung-rae, who stated shortly before the evacuation: “The neck is a sensitive part, thus Lee should undergo the surgery at the hands of competent surgeons. This is what his family wants.”

The story was made more interesting by the fact that Chairman Lee had previously emphasized the importance of rebuilding medical capacity in the provinces. However, upon moving to Seoul, Lee disavowed his previous statements. As noted by Lee Kyung-won, a professor of emergency medicine at Yongin Severance Hospital in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, “Who will trust provincial hospitals and their medical capabilities?”

Pusan National University Hospital and local fire authorities confirmed that the rescue helicopter was dispatched after a thorough medical evaluation and legal review.

According to vascular surgeon Min Seung-kee of Seoul National University Hospital, who performed Lee’s surgery, Lee required a revascularization procedure, which is a highly complex procedure. Surgery performed by an experienced surgeon was necessary. Approximately 60% of the patient’s internal jugular vein had been severed, and blood clots were present.

However, on January 8th, the Korean Pediatric Society filed a complaint against Lee Jae-myung with the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office. The complaint alleged that he unfairly used the emergency helicopter and that the stab wound he received was not serious enough to warrant such air transportation.

Lee was accused of obstructing two hospitals and violating the Emergency Medical Services Act. The accusation was based on Lee’s request to use the emergency helicopter, which was seen as an abuse of his authority over medical professionals and a demand for preferential treatment.

The Issue of Full Disclosure Regarding the Assailant’s Motives and Identity

On January 5, it was reported that the suspect had left an eight-page ‘apology note’ in which he explained the motive for his crime and his political beliefs. Kim was also quoted as writing: “During the previous government, the economy was ruined due to real estate policy failures and humiliating diplomacy toward North Korea. After the Yoon Suk-yeol administration was inaugurated and Lee Jae-myung became the opposition leader, the DP has dedicated itself to saving Lee. If everything goes like this, the economy will collapse, whoever wins the general elections.”

So far, it has been confirmed that he worked as a real estate agent based in Asan, in the South Chungcheong Province. That in April 2023, he purchased a mountaineering knife online and modified it by removing the handle and sharpening the blade to make it easier to commit the offence. The suspect made placards and hairbands to disguise himself as a Lee supporter. Kim arrived in Busan the day before the attack and spent the night in a motel about 10 kilometers from Gadeokdo Island. Since June, he has shadowed Lee Jae-myung on his work trips around the country five times.

On January 7, the police detained a man in his seventies on suspicion of aiding Kim. The individual was tasked with delivering a letter on behalf of Kim, which consisted of eight pages. The destination of the letter, however, was left unspecified.

On January 9, the police decided not to reveal the suspect’s full identity, nor Kim’s party affiliation. This decision caused the most excitement. However the law permits the disclosure of the identities of violent crime suspects only when there is sufficient evidence and a need to satisfy the public interest and the right to know.

“Technically, it cannot be disclosed as per relevant laws. We are currently discussing with the prosecution about the matter. But if we disclose (his political affiliations), there could be penalties,” an official at the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency said during a press briefing. The official referred to the Law on Political Parties, which prohibits investigative agencies from publicly disclosing information about a suspect’s political affiliation that may be revealed during an investigation. Violation of this law may result in a prison sentence of up to three years.

According to some media reports, Kim was a member of the Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the current PPP from 2015 to 2020 and joined the DPK in April 2023. However, the investigative authorities have not yet verified this information.

On the same day, January 9, the police released “Kim’s accomplice” given his minor involvement in the crime, his advanced age, and the lack of fear that he would destroy evidence or escape. Police do not believe the man was directly involved in the stabbing attack.

On January 10, Woo Chul-moon, head of the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency, said, “The suspect has said to the effect that he decided to kill the victim so as to prevent him from becoming president and … taking a majority of seats in the upcoming general elections.” Kim held a grudge because Lee was not properly punished due to delays in his legal proceedings.

According to the police, Kim “committed the extreme crime out of subjective political beliefs.” In his apology note, he claimed that Lee’s trials are being delayed due to “pro-North Korean forces” in the judiciary. He also attempted to prevent Lee from becoming president and the country from falling into the hands of leftist forces.

After examining Kim’s cell phone and financial transaction history, the investigation concluded that he had acted alone without an accomplice. Typical “yysa”.

“Fighting Fakes” and “Demanding to Reveal the Truth”

The police stated that they would respond severely to anyone who spreads false information.

The warning was issued in response to online posts from conservative sources that claimed the attack on Lee was a staged event, created by Lee himself to gain publicity and unite opposition voters prior to the general election. According to some reports, Lee was allegedly stabbed with a wooden chopstick.

Democrats have criticized the investigation as “a pile of cover-ups and speculations.” They suggest that there may have been other accomplices who helped the attacker. According to Jung Chung-rae, a four term DPK lawmaker, during the party Supreme Council meeting, “If you closely look at how the perpetrator stabbed Lee with the knife, he seems like someone who was highly trained. There should be a thorough background check into this.”

The Democratic Party filed complaints with the Korea Communications Standards Commission against six YouTube channels for spreading misinformation about the attack on its chairman. The party also lodged complaints with other relevant authorities.

The party has established a task force, led by Jeon Hyun-hee, former head of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, to address the incident. The objective is to request a prompt investigation into the political violence against Lee and take decisive action against the aggressive language and false information disseminated by cable channels and far-right YouTubers.

The committee urged the police to investigate the suspect’s history of political affiliations. It emphasized the importance of uncovering any possible motives or conspiracies behind the attempted murder. The provision of the Political Parties Act cited by the police is de facto repealed. Therefore, it is not a valid reason for non-disclosure.

The decision not to disclose Kim’s personal information and party affiliation drew a sharply negative reaction from Democrats. They have launched a separate special prosecutor investigation into the incident. The appointment will be made by the legislature, where the Democrats hold a majority.

On January 11, Hong Ihk-pyo, the leader of the parliamentary faction for the Democrats, requested that the police disclose the assailant’s political affiliation in the case of Lee Jae-myung. This request was made in response to media reports that the suspect had been a member of the ruling party for a long time before joining the Democrats in order to more closely monitor the victim and obtain information about Lee’s schedule.

On January 14, the Democratic Party announced that it would take legal action against the Prime Minister’s office, alleging that it attempted to conceal and manipulate information regarding the attack to reduce its political impact before the general election. According to Jeon Hyun-heui, the prime minister’s office sent text messages to reporters and many others on January 2, shortly after the attack, saying that Lee had only suffered a minor neck injury. The opposition party said those messages constituted fake news and demanded “clarification on who authorized the sending of these messages, the reasons behind it, and the number of recipients.” However, the author recalls that the seriousness of the injury became known much later. But from Jeon’s perspective somebody had swiftly cleaned the crime scene within an hour of the incident, asserting, “This clearly amounts to the crime of destruction of evidence.”

Against this background, the PPP accused the opposition of promoting conspiracy theories. As stated by Yun Jae-ok, the PPP floor leader, there is no reason for the police to conduct a passive investigation.

However, the Democrats will use this to attack the entire PPP with the fact that Kim most likely left their ranks precisely because he disagreed with the ruling policy.

The Political Impact

Although Lee has been discharged from the hospital, his return to party affairs is expected to be a gradual process. Senior DPK spokesperson Kwon Chil-seung told reporters that the timetable for Lee’s return to active duty would be determined after consultation with medical experts.

On January 12, Lee Jae-myung’s lawyer said that his client would not be able to attend the corruption hearing for the time being because he had not yet recovered from the attack. “On the face of it, he seemed to have trouble even speaking.” The court continued to question witnesses in Lee’s absence, and one of the key suspects in the case, Yoo Dong-gyu, was brought in for questioning.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office requested the Korean Bar Association on January 14 to consider disciplinary action against Lee Jae-myung as a lawyer citing multiple criminal charges he is standing trial on. The investigation found that Lee’s professional reputation as a lawyer was compromised due to the charges.

To summarize:

  • The lone vigilante version is very plausible, given a tradition of yysa (Fighters for justice), and age is no obstacle – the assailants of Park Geun-hye and Song Yeong-gil were also over 60.
  • The Democrats have taken the initiative and will demand the “truth”, interpreting any investigative move as withholding information. This will keep the topic alive until after the election and put Lee in the position of a victim of a regime that may have known everything but did nothing to catch the assailant.
  • However, Lee can’t just rest in bed until everything is over; he just can buy some time at most. The investigation is underway. New groups of politicians are leaving the party after Lee Nak-yon, and the one who puts out his last card wins in the war of compromising evidence.
  • Yet, the author wishes Lee Jae-myung good health and condemns political assassinations.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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