Attack on opposition leader raises alarm in divided South Korea

The man accused of stabbing Lee Jae-myung, the leader of South Korea’s main opposition party, in the neck, had been harassing him in recent weeks, including attending a political event where Lee was present on December 13. , apparently captured on video. There he was wearing a blue paper crown, police say.

At a rally Tuesday, a man wearing a similar paper crown and a message of support for Lee and his group also carried something else: a knife with a five-inch blade and a plastic handle wrapped with duct tape.

The attack, the worst against a South Korean politician in nearly two decades, seriously injured Lee, who authorities said was recovering in an intensive care unit at Seoul National University on Wednesday after surgery. And it deeply shocked a country that values ​​years of hard-won relative peace after an era of political and military violence before establishing democracy in the 1990s.

Police said the suspect, a 66-year-old real estate agent named Kim Jin-seong, had admitted his intention to kill Mr. Lee. Armed with a warrant, police confiscated Mr. Kim’s mobile phone and raided his home and office in Asan, south of Seoul, on Wednesday as they tried to piece together what might have motivated the attack.

With details still scant, public debate and news editorials expressed growing concern about South Korea’s deepening political polarization and the hatred and extremism it appeared to inspire, as well as the challenges it posed to South Korea’s young democracy. country.

“Opposition leader falls under knife of ‘politics of hate,'” read a headline in the Chosun Ilbo, the country’s main conservative newspaper.

Officials said little was known about Mr. Kim’s personal life or political and other background, except that he was a former government official who had been operating a real estate agency in Asan since 2012. Police found no records previous crimes, drug use or psychiatry. problems and said that he was sober at the time of the attack on Mr. Lee. His neighbors said they had little interaction with him.

A neighbor remembered him as a kind and hard-working “gentleman” who kept his office open every day, even on weekends, but who did not talk to him about politics and lived alone in an apartment.

“He is not someone who would do such a thing,” said Park Min-joon, who runs a building management company. “I could not believe it”.

The deep and bitter rivalry between Lee and President Yoon Suk Yeol has been the focus of South Korea’s political polarization since 2022, when Lee lost to Yoon by the narrowest margin of any free presidential election in South Korea. Rather than withdraw from politics, as some presidential candidates have done after defeats, Lee ran for (and won) a parliamentary seat, as well as the presidency of the opposition Democratic Party.

Under Mr. Yoon’s government, state prosecutors launched a series of investigations against Mr. Lee and sought to arrest him on various corruption and other criminal charges. Yoon has also refused to grant Lee one-on-one meetings that South Korean presidents had often offered to opposition leaders to seek political compromises. Instead, he has repeatedly characterized his political opponents as “anti-state forces” or “corrupt cartels.”

For his part, Lee accused Yoon of deploying state law enforcement forces to intimidate his enemies. His party has refused to endorse many of Yoon’s appointees to the Cabinet and Supreme Court. Political commentators compared the relationship between Yoon and Lee to “gladiator politics.”

“The two have been on a collision course for two years,” said Park Sung-min, director of MIN Consulting, a political consultancy. “President Yoon has been accused of not recognizing Lee Jae-myung as an opposition leader but as a suspect in a crime. “I don’t think his attitude will change after the knife attack on Lee.”

The last major attack on a national political leader occurred in 2006, when Park Geun-hye, then the opposition leader, was slashed across the face with a box cutter. But the attack was largely seen as an isolated outburst of anger by an ex-convict who complained of mistreatment by the police system. (Ms. Park won the 2012 presidential election.)

But in recent years, politicians have been increasingly exposed to hate in the public sphere, as political polarization has deepened. In a poll sponsored by the Hankyoreh newspaper in December, more than 50 percent of respondents said they felt the political divide was worsening. In another survey in December, commissioned by Chosun Ilbo, four in 10 respondents said they found it uncomfortable to share food or drinks with people who did not share their political views.

South Koreans had an early idea of ​​the current problem. During the 2022 presidential election campaign, opposition leader Song Young-gil was attacked by a man in his 70s wielding a baton and who subsequently committed suicide in prison.

Jin Jeong-hwa, a YouTuber whose channel openly supports Mr. Lee and who livestreamed the knife attack on Tuesday, said he could feel the growing political tension and hatred every day. Once, when he visited a conservative town in central South Korea, people who recognized him tried to throw him out, threatening him with sickles and knives.

“You see a lot of anger, slander, slander and demonization,” Jin said. “I’m not sure if a rational debate on issues and ideologies is possible anymore.”

On Wednesday, Yoon wished Lee a speedy recovery and called attacks on politicians “an enemy of free democracy.” His government ordered public security for politicians to be reinforced.

But analysts see little chance of political polarization easing in the short term as rival parties prepare for parliamentary elections in April. Social media, especially YouTube, has become so influential as a channel for spreading news and shaping public opinion that politicians said they were beholden to the populist demands of activist YouTubers, who were widely accused of stoking fear. and the hate.

Both Yoon and Lee have ardent online followers who often resort to insults, conspiracy theories, and even thinly veiled death threats against their enemies.

“Hate has become a daily norm” in South Korean politics, said Park, director of MIN Consulting. “Politicians must face the reality that similar things can happen again,” he said, referring to the knife attack on Lee.