January 4, 2024
SEOUL – The stabbing attack of opposition leader Lee Jae-myung has brought the nation’s political circles to a standstill, temporarily suspending a slew of harsh standoffs ahead of the April general elections.
Tuesday’s surprise attack has apparently brought a halt to former Democratic Party of Korea leader and ex-Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s plans to establish a new political party.
The attack took place 100 days before the upcoming April parliamentary elections, with the ruling party aiming to reclaim its majority from the Democratic Party. Both parties have minimized large-scale events and activities.
In recent months, the former prime minister has called for Lee Jae-myung to step down from the leadership position, criticizing his monopolization of power within the party. Lee Nak-yon said he would leave the Democratic Party and launch a new political party of his own. Observers had expected the announcement to come by the end of this week.
The Democratic Party held an emergency meeting Wednesday morning, with the main opposition lawmakers announcing to push back plans that could further fuel tension with Yoon and the ruling People Power Party.
Rep. Kim Yong-min and Rep. Jeon Yong-gi, who were planning to file complaints with the state-affiliated Corruption Investigation Office For High-ranking Officials against prosecutors currently investigating a media outlet accused of defamation against Yoon, announced a delay of the plan.
President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday labeled the attack on Lee as “an act of terrorism,” while condemning such violence as an “enemy of liberal democracy.”
“Terrorism, in any form, is more than just an act of harm or crime against the victim,” Yoon said during a New Year’s gathering of the Cabinet, National Assembly and industry experts.
“It suppresses human freedom and is an enemy to anyone who seeks to build a free society — it is an enemy of liberal democracy,” he added.
Yoon wished Lee, who remained hospitalized after surgery, a swift recovery, echoing an earlier statement released Tuesday.
Meanwhile, speculations have been growing over the possibility of the Lee Jae-myung attacker having been a supporter of the Democratic Party.
JTBC reported Wednesday that the 67-year-old suspect identified by only his surname Kim had joined the party’s supporter membership prior to attacking Lee Jae-myung. A main opposition party lawmaker, who requested anonymity, told JTBC that the suspect had been a longtime People Power Party supporter until recently.
People Power Party senior spokesperson Rep. Park Jeong-ha said that it is “too early” at this stage to determine anything and expressed regret at “attempts to hold the ruling party responsible” through “distortion of truth.” Though the ruling party said there was a supporter of the same name who withdrew his or her membership in 2020, it is uncertain whether the ex-member was the suspect himself. Police are currently investigating the matter.
Following Wednesday’s emergency party meeting, Democratic Party floor leader Rep. Hong Ik-pyo warned the authorities investigating the attack that the party “will not let any attempts to downsize or distort the process” slide by. Hong on Tuesday sent a text to party members and requested “to avoid making political interpretations or mentioning the suspect” in any way.
Police launched an investigation into Kim’s house and office in South Chungcheong Province, after a Seoul court issued a search warrant earlier in the day. The Busan Metropolitan Police Agency said they plan to formally arrest Kim.
Kim is accused of stabbing Lee in the neck with a knife while pretending to ask for an autograph as the party leader was visiting the construction site of a new airport on Gadeokdo, an island located offshore of Busan. Police say Kim had confessed intention to murder Lee.
Police disclosed circumstantial evidence pointing to premeditation, including the acquisition and modification of a 17-centimeter mountaineering knife for the crime. The suspect allegedly tracked Lee’s scheduled tour of some southern cities, arriving in Busan on Monday, visiting Ulsan later that day and returning to Busan on Tuesday.
Authorities emphasized their focus on uncovering the precise motive behind the attack.
Lee was in stable condition, but was in the intensive care unit at Seoul National University Hospital, an official at the hospital said in Wednesday’s briefing.
Lee sustained a 9-millimeter-deep cut in his jugular vein after the knife pierced through the skin and muscles in his neck, the official explained. He suffered a “serious wound” and currently requires stability. Lee had undergone a two-hour surgery.