23.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The attempted assassination of MP Bae: a sign of a mental epidemic?

The attempted assassination of MP Bae

As soon as Korean society was able to recover from the assassination attempt on Lee Jae-myung and Chairman Lee himself returned to the ranks and began actively denouncing the Conservative government, a new attack took place: this time the victim was 40-year-old MP Bae Hyun-jin, a former popular TV presenter and lawmaker from the ruling Conservative People Power Party. In 2022, she was the President’s press secretary for a short time.

What happened?

The video captured by the cameras quickly went viral all over the internet. The incident occurred around 5 p.m. on January 25 in Seoul’s Gangnam district. The attacker first asked the victim if she was MP Bae, and after about six to seven seconds of dialogue, jumped on her and struck her 15 to 17 times in the head with a stone the size of a grown man’s fist until witnesses nearby rounded him up. As a result, Bae suffered serious injuries, lost a lot of blood and was taken to the hospital, but as of writing this her life is no longer in danger.

On January 27, Bae Hyun-jin was discharged from the hospital, describing the event as an accident that could happen to anyone, promising to work “harder than ever” to keep people safe once she fully recovers.

How’s the investigation going?

The attacker was quickly apprehended and turned out to be a 15-year-old schoolboy. Most likely, due to his age, full information about him will not be disclosed. Some sources claim that he is even under 15, and that this exempts him from criminal responsibility for assault. He has been treated for depression and has been taking pills, but the result of his assessment by medics for mental health problems is not yet known.

The police hospitalized the teenager (under the emergency hospitalization system, people with suspected mental illness can be admitted to a mental hospital for a maximum of three days due to an urgent risk of harm to themselves or others), questioned the suspect in the presence of his guardian and searched his home, examining the contents of his gadgets and social media posts.

The attacker himself says that the attack was spontaneous – he left his house two hours before the incident and met the official quite by chance, after which he attacked her with a stone, which he usually always carries with him. He also said that he had recently been placed in a locked ward of a mental hospital due to severe symptoms of depression. According to reports from those close to him, he had experienced conflicts at school, attended the counselling center of an educational institution close to the scene and was treated at a hospital where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Although a pre-prepared stone may speak against the version of a spontaneous attack, but if the schoolboy carried the stone with him all the time, the author raises questions about his mental health or constant threats like school bullying. On the other hand, the attacker attended political events and often shared political content in group chats.

What happens next?MP Bae refused to show leniency to the attacker and expressed to the police that she intended to press charges against the suspect in accordance with relevant laws, while Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner-general of the National Police Agency, instructed the Seoul Metropolitan Police Department to set up a 27-member investigation team. He also instructed them to actively counter any misinformation related to the case.


Then, ahead of the April parliamentary elections, police will form a task force to enhance security for lawmakers and politicians not only during official events. In addition, 36 police squads across the country will also be assigned to cover public events of political parties.

How did politicians and society react?

The attack was condemned by both Conservatives and Democrats, and a number of media outlets condemned the politics of hate that pushes people with unstable mental state to such “feats.”

President Yoon Suk-yeol condemned the attack as an act of terrorism and wished Bae a speedy recovery. “An act of terrorism against a politician, who represents the people, is no different from terrorism against the people,” he said.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo ordered law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the case, describing terrorist attacks against politicians as a serious criminal act that shakes the foundations of democracy.

Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, who himself recently survived an assassination attempt, wrote on Facebook that he took the incident to heart: “no acts of political terrorism should be tolerated. We must respond to these cases carefully and decisively.”

Conservative leader Han Dong-hoon visited Bae in the hospital and told reporters that an incident like this should never happen again, “We must get to the bottom of this case and severely punish the attacker… we will do our best to quickly and clearly reveal the truth about this incident. We will also make sure that people are not disturbed by speculation.”

Yun Jae-ok, leader of the People Power parliamentary faction, wondered “what made the teenager use violence against the lawmaker,” responding that “unless our politics stops promoting hate against opponents and stops spreading such hostility to the public using inappropriate language, such incidents are likely to be repeated.”

His vis-a-vis Hong Ihk-pyo said there was political terror, but the Democratic Party “opposes any acts of terror that threaten democracy. We will also expand solidarity with people who speak out against hate.”

As JoongAng Ilbo reported, “after lawmakers shunned dialogue and compromise with their opponents — and demonized them with coarse and provocative rhetoric — our politics lost integrity and turned the legislature into a battlefield, which in turn was further heated by conspiracies and wild theories on YouTubes and social media.” “As YouTube and other social media algorithms show users what they might like, based on their previous choices, avid viewers of political content often fall prey to confirmation bias, or a tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms or backs their prior beliefs or values.”

Korea Times points out that “acts of terror against politicians, who regularly engage with eligible voters, constitute severe criminal offenses that undermine the foundations of democracy. They should not be tolerated under any circumstances.” Therefore, “there should be no hasty premeditation or assumptions made based on political calculations. The police should thoroughly dig into the motives behind the offensive and possible accomplices and masterminds. It needs to unveil the truth involving the case in a transparent manner, thus leaving no suspicion unanswered.”

Well, there is indeed a politics of hate in the modern Republic of Korea, as in the era of parliamentary elections the parties are actively comparing anti-ratings, the amount of negativity thrown in is very high. Added to this is the practice of online bullying of opponents, which is equally resorted to by conservative youtubers, Lee Jun-seok’s entourage from the Ilbe website (a rather specific place) and, of course, “Lee Jae-myung’s fan club.”

Political commentator Park Sang-byung compares the current political landscape in Korea to a state of civil war, “where the elimination of the other side is perceived as a victory. The prevailing mood seems to encourage attacks on rival party politicians for strategic gains,” and a political opponent is seen simply as a target for elimination.

“Unless there is a fundamental change in the political structure, there are fears that attacks on politicians will intensify in the future,” he said.

Korea Times cites some statements like this: more politicians should become victims of such crimes so that they can “learn a lesson.” “I’m actually looking forward to another politician being beaten up. The next one will be Lee Jun-seok,” a user wrote on Dcinside, one of Korea’s largest online communities, a day after the attack. Another wrote, “How do politicians survive knife attacks or being hit in the head with a rock? They are like cockroaches.” The third one said that minors should attack more politicians to make them realize the seriousness of juvenile crimes.

The experts’ point of view is interesting. Oh Yoon-sung, a professor of police administration at Soonchunhyang University, emphasized the impact of access to news and social media on such incidents. This accessibility may enable people to easily reproduce criminal acts they have witnessed online.

Lee Yoon-ho, a professor of police science at the Cyber University of Korea, also pointed out the risk of copycat crimes: a mistaken sense of heroism can escalate into more audacious offences, especially in attacks on politicians, where perpetrators may misperceive their actions as serving the cause of justice.

Professor Lee Soo-jung, from Kyonggi University, suggested that Bae’s gender may have played a role, given the general trend of online antagonism towards women.

What the author thinks

From what the author knows, there was no political reasoning behind the attack. Using minors as hitmen is not a Korean practice, and it is easier to imagine that a teenager with mental problems attacked MP Bae not as a Conservative MP but as a formerly popular TV presenter.

But the incident points to two other things. The first one is the actual level of hate-mongering in the internal political struggle, which makes people “blow their gaskets” in a strictly defined direction.

The second one is more important, and does not only concern the ROK. COVID-19 left behind what the author’s colleagues call a “mental epidemic” that consists of three components and, in the post-COVID era, impacts not only schoolchildren but also decision makers.

  1. COVID-19 consequences often include those that damage cognitive abilities. According to some medical professionals, COVID-19 affects the human brain, resulting in at least irritability and partial amnesia during post-COVID syndrome.
  2. The atmosphere of stress caused by media panic and being locked up for long periods of time exacerbates psychological tension, and potential problems and disorders enter the active phase.
  3. The shift of attention to the pandemic pushed mental problems into the shadows, causing an analogue to the 9/11 situation when, because most ambulances were rushed to the Twin Towers, more people died in the rest of the city due to lack of care than victims of the attack.

Thus, the number of people with problems or disorders has increased dramatically and this has a significant impact on the political climate. This has several consequences:

  1. The rise of negative emotions, which in a certain situation make people react faster than rational, increases the likelihood that people will make hot-headed decisions.
  2. A blow to cognitive abilities also reduces the quality of decision making.
  3. Senior decision makers receive treatment and are less susceptible to the effects outlined above, but their decisions are based on inputs and those who prepare documents for them to sign may well suffer from a similar syndrome.

The mental epidemic is well felt around the world, but returning to Korea, it was under Yoon Suk-yeol that the authorities began to pay serious attention to the mental health problems of youth and to strategize about it. This is a topic for a separate conversation, but the author believes that this incident will spur the authorities’ efforts in this direction.

In general, it is to be hoped that there will be no more assassination attempts. However, the author is not so sure about that. It is easy to blame the politics of hate, but it is much harder to abandon it, despite the fact that nowadays almost every text on this topic contains lines such as “it is time for both the ruling and opposition parties to refrain from excessive political confrontation. Party leaders should strongly caution those who use hostile rhetoric against their rivals in the run-up to the general election. Candidates who post hate speech on social media should be denied the chance of being nominated for election.”


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Researcher at 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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