A man wearing a bizarre paper crown stabbed South Korean Democratic Party (DP) leader Lee Jae-myung in the neck during a political event in southern Busan on Tuesday, barely missing his carotid artery and forcing the lawmaker into a complex surgical procedure.
South Korean media, citing the Democratic Party, reported later on Tuesday that Lee appeared not to have suffered “life-threatening” injuries,
“It is fortunate that the damaged area is the jugular vein,” an anonymous hospital official told the South Korean news service Yonhap.
Lee is one of South Korea’s most prominent politicians, the leader of the mainstream left-wing party and its most recent presidential candidate. Lee narrowly lost the 2022 presidential election to conservative current President Yoon Suk-yeol in a hard-fought election rife with negative campaigning, including accusations of ill-treatment of domestic workers and “shamanism” on either side of the spectrum.
He since obtained a seat in the National Assembly, South Korea’s national legislature, and battled accusations of taking bribes, going on a hunger strike in September to protest what he insisted were false allegations against him.
On Tuesday, Lee was on an official visit to Busan to observe the site of a future airport. A livestream shared on his official Youtube account shows the moments immediately before the stabbing, in which he delivered remarks on the infrastructure project alongside allied political figures.
News outlet filmed Lee departing the site. A man wearing a blue paper crown with the words “I’m Lee Jae-myung” written on them approached the politician, reportedly asking for an autograph.
When authorities declined his request, he approached Lee and stabbed him in the neck. Lee fell immediately and those surrounding him used various fabrics to stop the bleeding, likely saving his life.
The Korea JoongAng Daily reported on Tuesday that 41 police officers were on duty at the event; none of them intervened to stop the stabbing.
Police have identified the suspect only by the last name “Kim,” one of the most common in the country, and described him as a 67-year-old. “Kim” reportedly used an 18-centimeter (seven-inch) knife he bought on the internet for the attack. South Korea strictly limits civilian ownership of firearms, though all able-bodied men learn how to handle firearms during mandatory military service.
“Kim” reportedly told police he intended to kill Lee. Authorities are investigating the motive at press time, though some media outlets in the country have reported suggestions that “Kim” was, at least once, a supporter of Lee’s. Multiple reports suggest that “Kim” had attended past events by the Democratic Party leader, wearing the same paper crown, most recently on December 13.
South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo reported that “Kim” has a history of membership to the Democratic Party – registering with the party “last year,” meaning after the 2022 election – but could not confirm if he was still registered with the Party at the time of the stabbing.
Dong-A Ilbo described Kim as a self-employed real estate agent who lived an “ordinary” life with which and children. It claimed to have interviewed several neighbors who described Kim as “quiet” and a benefit to his community, aiding “low-income people and immigrants” by charging low brokerage fees for his service, or none at all in those cases.
Yonhap reported that Lee is expected to make a recovery, though hospital sources in Seoul said the surgery to repair the damage was more complex than expected.
Stabbing attacks are not uncommon in South Korean politics. JoongAng Daily listed several recent incidents against presidents and major political party leaders – and the dramatic stabbing of a U.S. ambassador – from the last decade:
Former President Park Geun-hye was attacked with a box cutter while attending a rally for a local government election in 2006 when she was the leader of the conservative party. She suffered an 11-centimeter-long cut on her right cheek.
Former DP leader Song Young-gil was struck with a blunt object by a YouTuber, suspected to be a supporter of the party, during the presidential campaign in March 2022.
Then-U. S. Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert was attacked by a pro-unification activist in his 50s with a knife on May 5, 2015. The U.S. ambassador suffered an 11-centimeter-long and 3-centimeter-deep cut to his face.
Song was Lee’s campaign manager at the time of the attack. The self-proclaimed “YouTuber” in question, a 70-year-old man, approached him at a campaign rally in Seoul and struck him in the head with a hammer. The attack required stitches to address medically but did not endanger Song’s life.
In statements to the public, the Democratic Party described the stabbing as “political terror” and a threat to South Korea’s democracy. Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP), the ruling conservative party, also condemned the attack and insisted its members treat the attack as if it had happened to a PPP member.
“Regardless of our political affiliations, we, as a unified whole, must remain steadfast and express our hopes for the swift recovery of our political adversary,” PPP leader Han Dong-hoon said in a statement. “To consider the attack as if it had happened to oneself is something that a sophisticated party like our People Power Party and sophisticated citizens could extend to a fellow citizen,”
Yoon himself issued a statement offering his “deep concern” for Lee’s health and affirming, “this type of violence must never be tolerated under any circumstances.”