Attack caps tumultuous year for South Korean opposition leader

While his injury is said to be non-life-threatening, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung faces other threats, including calls to step down after his leadership was marred by his alleged involvement in corruption scandals.

Wendy Teo

Wendy Teo

The Straits Times


The attack on DP leader Lee Jae-myung on Jan 2 had come during a critical point in his tumultuous year. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

January 3, 2024

SEOUL – From corruption accusations to infighting, and now a knife attack on its leader, South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has been embroiled in one scandal after another as the 100-day countdown begins for the country’s legislative election due in April.

But analysts said the party, which holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, is likely to maintain its lead over the ruling People Power Party (PPP), which is caught in its own scandals, in addition to low ratings for President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The attack on DP leader Lee Jae-myung on Jan 2 had come during a critical point in his tumultuous year. He was touring the site of a new airport in the southern port city Busan when a 67-year-old man lunged at him with a knife.

While his injury is said to be non-life-threatening, Lee faces other threats, including calls to step down after his leadership was marred by his alleged involvement in corruption scandals during his previous tenures as mayor of Seongnam city and governor of Gyeonggi province.

Lee, 60, has steadfastly refused to step down, and the infighting is leading to an imminent fracture with party heavyweight and former party chief Lee Nak-yon, who has announced his intention to leave the party and set up a new one.

Against the backdrop of the upcoming legislative election in April, analysts told The Straits Times that the attack is unlikely to change the state of matters nor impact the election at this juncture, given that the injury is said to be not severe.

Law lecturer Lee Jae-min from Seoul National University told ST: “A lot depends on the extent of his injury. If it is a serious injury, then it could have a significant impact on Korean politics because Koreans are very emotional.

“But it doesn’t appear that his injury is fatal so he will hopefully recover some time soon. If that is the case, then today’s event will not carry that much of an impact.”

Both Professor Lee and Sogang University political scientist Kim Jae-chun dismissed speculation that the attack was politically motivated despite DP calling it a “terrorist attack” and a “serious threat to democracy”.

Professor Kim told ST: “I don’t think this was orchestrated, with any links to political factions in the ruling party or in the opposition party. This is more likely an act committed by a lone wolf.”

While the attack may gain Lee Jae-myung some sympathy from his own party, Professor Kim said it will not bring Mr Lee Nak-yon back to the party. “I think he has pretty much parted his ways with the Democratic Party.”

The two Lees had a private meeting on Dec 30 to iron out differences, but the talks failed, with the DP leader rejecting the other Lee’s request to form a joint interim leadership committee to transform the party before the election.

The departure of Mr Lee Nak-yon, who was previously prime minister under former president Moon Jae-in’s administration, is likely to spur other disgruntled party members to follow suit.

Mr Lee Nak-yon is said to have the support of two other former prime ministers, Mr Chung Sye-kyun and Mr Kim Boo-kyum, who have raised concerns about the DP leader’s divisive leadership and his obvious favouring of his affiliates.

A five-term lawmaker, Lee Sang-min (not to be confused with Interior Minister Lee Sang-min), who resigned from DP on Dec 3, told reporters the party was like the leader’s personal party with some of his extremist supporters exercising too much influence.

Obvious cracks within the opposition party came to the forefront in September 2023, when the DP-led National Assembly voted for Lee Jae-myung to be served an arrest warrant on bribery and breach of duty charges.

The vote came while Lee Jae-myung was staging a 24-day hunger strike against President Yoon’s government for its economic mismanagement, threats to media freedom and the failure to oppose Japan’s release of wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.

Lee is accused of asking a company to illegally transfer US$8 million (S$10.6 million) to North Korea between January 2019 and January 2020 when he was governor of Gyeonggi province, and breaching his duty during his tenure as Seongnam city mayor from 2010 to 2018, over losses of 20 billion won (S$20 million) by a municipal development corporation.

Lee denies the charges, calling them “fiction” and “a political conspiracy”, accusing Mr Yoon of using the criminal justice system to intimidate his political opponents.

While Prof Lee thinks the legal charges will pose a significant obstacle for Lee and his party, he said it is too early to tell how the split in DP factions will affect the opposition’s overall standing in the election.

“A hundred days is a long time in Korean politics,” he told ST on Jan 2, which marks the 100-day countdown to election day.

Prof Kim believes that despite split loyalties in the largest opposition party, the political direction would remain the same.

“The policy stances are pretty much the same. It is more of personal differences between the leaders, so you can still see them as one opposition party”, which meant that it would still be difficult for the ruling party to narrow the gap in terms of National Assembly seats.

The PPP is mired in its own troubles of a breakaway faction led by former party leader Lee Jun-seok, a pending probe into allegations of stock manipulation involving First Lady Kim Keon-hee, and Mr Yoon’s low approval ratings in the 30 per cent range.

The DP currently holds the majority 167 out of 300 National Assembly seats, while the PPP holds 112.

A poll conducted in December by Hankook Research showed that 30 per cent of 1,000 respondents agreed that the DP should win the election to indicate the public’s disapproval of the Yoon government, while 26 per cent felt the ruling party should win.

“Depending on how the new party (led by Mr Lee Nak-yon) fares in the elections, they could still choose to merge with the Democratic Party on favourable terms, so you can consider them as pretty much the same party at the end of the day. If this is the case, the prospect for the ruling party remains grim, actually,” said Prof Kim.

So, despite the attack and the troubles surrounding Lee, the opposition leader is likely to ride out this wave as he has in the past.

Prof Kim said with a chuckle: “His nickname is phoenix; he’s a survivor. He will survive this.”

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