Lee Jae-myung, leader of South Korea’s main opposition party, was stabbed in the neck Tuesday morning by a man who approached him for an autograph, police said.
Lee, 59, leader of the liberal Democratic Party, was making his way through a crowd in the port city of Busan when he was attacked, according to police and live television footage of the incident. He had just finished answering questions from reporters after touring the site of a planned airport.
Busan police said the attacker, a 66-year-old man, had been detained and was under investigation for a possible charge of attempted murder. But they did not provide details about Mr. Lee’s condition or the motives of the attacker, who they said had used a knife with a five-inch blade.
Mr. Lee was bleeding from his neck before he was taken away in an ambulance, according to news reports and photographs from the scene. He was taken to a hospital in Busan and then flown by helicopter to Seoul for treatment at Seoul National University Hospital.
Mr. Lee was conscious and recovering from a two-hour surgery to remove blood clots and repair a damaged jugular vein in his neck, Kwon Chilseung, a spokesman for his party, said during a news conference at the hospital. On tuesday night. .
Footage of the attack showed the attacker approaching Mr Lee through a group of television camera operators, apparently posing as one of his supporters; He was wearing what appeared to be a paper or plastic crown with the words “I am Lee Jae-myung.” Supporters and police officers restrained the man after the stabbing and took him to a police car.
“The man approached Mr. Lee and loudly asked for an autograph,” Son Je-han, a senior investigator with Busan police, told reporters at a news conference.
Lee was narrowly defeated by Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative, in South Korea’s last presidential election, in 2022. He has since been subjected to a series of investigations by state prosecutors over corruption and other criminal charges.
He denied all charges against him and last year went on a three-week hunger strike in protest, accusing Mr. Yoon of using the criminal justice system to intimidate his political opponents. A court refused to allow prosecutors to arrest Mr Lee, but he faces the prospect of a series of trials.
Yoon expressed his “deep concern” for Lee’s safety on Tuesday and ordered his government to conduct a swift investigation into the attack and provide support for his medical treatment, the president’s office said in a statement.
“The president emphasized that this form of violence should not be tolerated under any circumstances in our society,” the statement said.
South Koreans are deeply divided over Lee, who is expected to run for president again in 2027. His progressive supporters see him as an outspoken defender of the poor and social minorities, while his conservative detractors call him a corrupt populist. .
The country’s politics have become increasingly polarized in recent years, and rancor between Yoon’s supporters and Lee’s supporters has grown as April’s parliamentary elections approach.
But physical attacks on politicians have been rare. In 2006, conservative politician Park Geun-hye, then opposition leader, was slashed in the face with a box cutter by a man who had vehemently criticized her. Ms. Park won the 2012 presidential election.
In 2015, a self-proclaimed nationalist who had expressed anti-American sentiments slashed the face of Mark W. Lippert, then the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, with a kitchen knife.
The Democratic Party considers Lee’s stabbing an “act of terror” and an “attack on democracy,” said Kwon, the party spokesman.
Yoon Hee-keun, head of South Korea’s national police agency, ordered beefed up security for politicians and other prominent officials.