South Korean Police Raid House of Suspect Who Stabbed Opposition Leader Lee in the Neck

Lee Ju-hyung/Yonhap via AP
South Korea police arrives for seize materials at the office of the man who stabbed opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, in Asan, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean police on Wednesday raided the residence and office of a man who stabbed the country’s opposition leader, Lee Jae-myung, in the neck in an attack that left him hospitalized in an intensive care unit, officials said.

The assault occurred when Lee, the leader of the liberal opposition Democratic Party, was passing through a throng of journalists after visiting the proposed site of a new airport in the southeastern city of Busan on Tuesday. The attacker, posing as a supporter, approached Lee asking for his autograph before he took out a 17-centimeter-long (6.7-inch) knife to attack him.

After receiving emergency treatment in Busan, Lee was transported by a helicopter to the Seoul National University Hospital for surgery. Cho Jeong-sik, the party’s secretary general, said Wednesday the two-hour surgery was successful and that Lee remained in the hospital’s intensive care unit for recovery. Local media reports said Lee was later transferred to an ordinary ward.

Kang Cheong Hee, a cardiothoracic surgeon who is a Democratic Party member, later told a briefing that Lee suffered “a serious injury” — a cut of more than 9 millimeters (0.35 inches) on his jugular vein. Kang, who didn’t take part in Lee’s surgery, cited the politician’s surgery and medical records at the Seoul hospital. Repeated calls to hospital officials for comments were unanswered on Wednesday.

Lee was initially in a very critical condition and it’s no exaggeration to say he’s survived by divine luck, Kang said.

The suspect was detained by police immediately after the attack. Police said he told investigators he attempted to kill Lee and that he had plotted his attack alone, but his motive is unknown.

Busan police said they sent officers to search the suspect’s residence and office in the central city of Asan on Wednesday as part of their investigation. They said they also plan to examine the suspect’s mobile phone.

Police said they plan to ask for a formal arrest warrant for the suspect over alleged attempted murder. Under local law, police can detain a suspect for 48 hours, but an arrest warrant allows them to keep a suspect in custody for 10 more days. Police often request an arrest warrant if they worry a suspect could flee or destroy evidence, according to police and court officials.

Police disclosed few other details about the suspect except that he was aged about 67 and bought the climbing knife online. Police refused to disclose what kind of office he has in Asan, but local media photos showed officers searching a real estate office.

One of his Asan neighbors who said he has known the suspect for about two years described him as a quiet, shy man who rarely spoke about politics. The neighbor, who only wished to be identified by his family name of Jeon, told The Associated Press that the suspect runs a real estate agency in Asan but is behind on his rent for several months.

Lee, 59, is a tough-speaking liberal who lost the 2022 presidential election to President Yoon Suk Yeol by 0.7 percentage points, the narrowest margin recorded in a South Korean presidential election. Their closely fought presidential race and post-election bickering between their allies have deepened South Korea’s already-toxic conservative-liberal divide.

Police said officers searched the Seoul headquarters of Lee’s Democratic Party and Yoon’s People Power Party on Wednesday to confirm whether he has had a membership in either of the two parties.

Recent public surveys have put Lee as one of the two leading early favorites for the next presidential election in 2027, along with Yoon’s popular former justice minister, Han Dong-hoon. Yoon is by law barred from seeking reelection.

In a New Year meeting involving top officials, politicians and general citizens on Wednesday, Yoon repeated his wish for Lee’s quick recovery. He also condemned the assault on Lee as “an act of terror” that is “an enemy to all of us and an enemy to liberal democracy,” according to his office. Lee was supposed to attend that meeting.

Lee has been a vocal critic of Yoon. Last year, he launched a 24-day hunger strike to protest Yoon’s major policies, including what he called Yoon’s refusal to firmly oppose Japan’s release of treated radioactive wastewater from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power.

Lee has been grappling with a prolonged prosecutors’ investigation over a range of corruption allegations. Lee has denied legal wrongdoing and accused Yoon’s government of pursuing a political vendetta.