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[Editorial] No tolerance for violence

Stabbing of opposition leader Lee poses threat to democracy, reveals distorted politics of hatred

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 4, 2024 - 05:30

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South Korea’s political scene hit turbulence when Lee Jae-myung, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, was stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southeastern port city of Busan on Tuesday, a shocking physical attack that sparked a chorus of condemnation from the public as well as political figures.

The Democratic Party chair was stabbed on the left side of his neck by a man who disguised himself as an autograph-seeking supporter Tuesday morning. The suspect, who was identified only by his surname of Kim, 66, was immediately overpowered and detained at the scene, while Lee was taken to a hospital in Busan for emergency treatment for a stab wound of about 1.5 centimeters in the neck.

Lee was flown by helicopter to Seoul to undergo emergency surgery for vascular reconstruction at Seoul National University Hospital. He is said to be recovering in the intensive care unit from damage to his jugular vein.

The Democratic Party said in a statement, “We strongly condemn this act of political terrorism against Lee.” In front of the hospital, the party’s chief spokesperson, Rep. Kwon Chil-seung, said, “This should never have happened under any circumstances.”

President Yoon Suk Yeol and rival parties also expressed concern over Lee’s safety and condemned the attack, saying that violence should never be tolerated under any circumstances.

Police said the suspect had used an 18-cm-long knife that he had bought online in the stabbing. On Wednesday, the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency said it would seek an arrest warrant to formally arrest Kim on charges of attempted murder, while launching an investigation to establish the motive.

The stabbing has already had a ripple effect throughout the political circle as it came a little over 100 days before crucial parliamentary elections are to be held in April. Some are placing blame for the attack on fake news fueling hatred or lone wolf extremists, while groundless conspiracy theories have circulated. Some key politicians have been taking steps to weather the political aftermath.

Former leader of the Democratic Party and ex-Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, for instance, had planned to launch a new party as early as this week but reportedly decided to put it off amid concerns that it would trigger a backlash from opposition party supporters. The ex-leader of the ruling People Power Party, Lee Jun-seok, said last Wednesday that he would launch a new political party of his own, but is now likely to adjust his plan as the public focus has shifted toward Lee’s recovery and its impact on the elections.

There is no doubt that heinous violence against a political figure in broad daylight is a serious threat to the country’s democracy. No violence can be justified or tolerated, especially in a democratic society where political views should be expressed in a peaceful and legitimate manner. The authorities must get to the bottom of the case and announce the result in a transparent way.

It is deeply regrettable that the country continues to witness savage violence against politicians, reflecting deep-seated hatred and distorted views of political foes. In 2022, Song Young-gil, then-chief of the Democratic Party, was attacked from behind with a hammer by a hard-line nationalist and extreme traditionalist YouTuber. In 2018, a man posing as a supporter approached Kim Sung-tae, then-floor leader of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, and punched him in the jaw. In May 2006, a man attacked former President Park Geun-hye with a box cutter, leaving a long laceration on her cheek. Park had been on the campaign trail for local elections as an opposition leader at the time.

As concerns mounted over the security of politicians ahead of the elections, the National Police Agency has announced security protection for key personnel will be strengthened. But this decision may not be enough to prevent similar attacks as more candidates will meet with voters in person across the nation ahead of the elections. Aside from the thorny issues of dealing with conspiracy theories, political extremism and hate-motivated violence, authorities must introduce comprehensive and preemptive measures to block any recurrence of violence.