South Korean opposition leader injured in knife attack, recovering at ICU

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s opposition leader was stabbed in the neck by an unidentified attacker Tuesday during a visit to the southeastern city of Busan, officials said.

A police official in the city said the injury to Lee Jae-myung, chairman of South Korea’s Democratic Party, was not life-threatening. Lee was conscious and experienced little blood loss, the official told NBC News.

Lee was airlifted to the Seoul National University Hospital in the country’s capital. He was recovering in the intensive care unit in the hospital after a two-hour surgery, his party said. The “operation went well and he is in a stable condition,” said Do Gunn, director of communications at Democracy Party.

A male suspect in his 60s from south Choongchung province was in custody, Sohn Jae-han, the head detective from the Busan Regional Police, said in a news briefing Tuesday.

The police would investigate the suspect with “attempted murder charges” as he confessed he “tried to kill” Lee with the 7-inch-long knife he carried, he said.

The suspect approached Lee and said he wanted an autograph, then stabbed him in the left side of his neck, he said, adding that the suspect was immediately “restrained” by Lee’s people after the incident occurred.

Other officers told reporters late Tuesday that the police are going to request an official arrest for alleged attempted murder, the AP reported.

Photos showed him on the ground surrounded by people. In the images, someone is seen pressing something against Lee’s neck. Another image shows Lee being carried on a stretcher outfitted with what appears to be a neck brace.

The police official who spoke to NBC News described the wound as less than half an inch long.

“So far, doctors suspect that (the party chairman) may be suffering from jugular vein damages,” Kwon Chil-seung, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party, said in a briefing.

“We strongly condemn the act of terror and this clearly is an act aimed to destroy democracy,” he said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered police and other officials to investigate the attack and ensure Lee receives “the best of care,” a presidential spokesperson said.

“In addition, the president stressed zero tolerance to violence and said that violence should never be tolerated under any circumstances,” the spokesperson said. 

Citing emergency officials, The Associated Press reported that the attack occurred while Lee was visiting the construction site of a new airport in Busan.

The suspect has not been identified, and authorities did not provide additional details about the nature of the attack.

Lee lost the 2022 presidential election to Yoon by 0.7 percentage point, the narrowest margin ever recorded in a South Korean presidential election. Lee faces an array of corruption allegations but has denied legal wrongdoing and accused Yoon’s government of pursuing a political vendetta.

Lee’s predecessor, Song Young-gil, was attacked in 2022 by a man who wielded a hammerlike object.

In 2015, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was attacked in his face and arm by a man with a knife.

The conservative party leader, Park Geun-hye — who became the country’s president and later was sentenced over a corruption scandal — was stabbed in 2006 at an event and underwent surgeries.

Stella Kim reported from Seoul, Tim Stelloh from California and Larissa Gao from Hong Kong.


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