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South Korean opposition leader is stabbed in public


OK, so 2024 is an election year, yes, here in the U.S. but also in South Korea. And that country's political calendar got off to a violent start this week when an assailant stabbed the leader of South Korea's main opposition party with a knife. NPR's Anthony Kuhn says some observers see it as a warning sign about the state of politics in one of Asia's leading democracies.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Lee Jae-myung is the leader of the opposition Democratic Party. He was squeezing his way through a scrum of journalists and supporters in the southern city of Busan when an assailant posing as a supporter approached him, pretending to try to get his autograph. He lunged at Lee and struck him in the neck with a knife.


KUHN: Police hustled the assailant away and arrested him. Lee fell to the ground bleeding. He was taken to a local hospital and then airlifted to Seoul for surgery. President Yoon Suk Yeol, who narrowly beat Lee for the presidency in 2022 elections, condemned the attack as unacceptable. Democratic Party spokesman Kwon Chil-seung spoke to reporters after the incident.


KWON CHIL-SEUNG: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "We strongly condemn this terrorist attack by the unidentified assailant," he said, "as it is clearly a destructive act against democracy." Kwon later said that Lee is in intensive care after doctors repaired damage to his jugular vein. Busan police later told reporters that the suspect in the attack was a man surnamed Kim, born in 1957. Kim told police he had intended to kill Lee, so police plan to charge him with attempted murder. Police are still trying to find out his motivation. Political violence is hardly new to South Korea. Lee's predecessor was attacked by an assailant with a blunt instrument two years ago. Political commentator Lee Jong-hoon, who is not related to the opposition chief, says Tuesday's attack shows a combination of social and political ills afflicting South Korea. On the social side, he notes, the country has seen an increase in crimes committed by alienated loners with extreme views. On the political side, he says...

LEE JONG-HOON: (Through interpreter) Bipartisan cooperation is disappearing. And in its absence, the politics of anger is spreading. This has to do with politicians weakening capability for political negotiation.

KUHN: During the previous Liberal administration of President Moon Jae-in, Lee says, there were at least attempts at compromise, even if they didn't work.

LEE: (Through interpreter) But under this administration, bipartisan cooperation has disappeared and extreme confrontation between the two parties has continued. And more recently, ahead of the general elections, the confrontations are deepening.

KUHN: Lee notes that conservative politicians have been attacked too, including former president Park Geun-hye. A stabbing attack on her when she was opposition chief in 2006, Lee says, helped her party win local elections that year. A lot is riding on this April's general elections. South Korea's economic growth is slowing and its population is ageing and shrinking, and tensions on the Korean peninsula are mounting as North Korea builds up its nuclear arsenal and cultivates closer ties with Russia and China. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.