Politics

Korean prominent politician assaulted days before presidential elections

Song Young-gil, South Korea's ruling party leader, was attacked during a rally days before Korea's presidential election marked by bitter campaigning.

Song Young-gil, South Korea Democratic Party leader, at a political rally on March 5
Song Young-gil, South Korea Democratic Party leader, at a political rally on March 5 before the Presidential elections | Song Young-gil, Facebook

Song Young-gil was assaulted on March 7 by a man during a rally for Korea's presidential candidate days before the country's election.

The unidentified attacker in his 70s sneaked up behind Song and hit him several times with what appeared to be a hammer wrapped in a plastic bag before being tackled by people nearby, according to videos taken by witnesses and posted on social media.

Song Young-gil is the chairman of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party. Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyeonggi Province is the Democratic Party's presidential candidate of elections that will take place on March 9.

Song Young-gil received four to five stitches but appeared to have avoided serious injury. On his Facebook page, Song posted "I can stand it" few hours after the attack. Seoul Metropolitan Policy Agency official said officers were questioning the attacker.

The party released a statement saying it strongly condemns the attack on Song, calling such actions a "serious threat to democracy".

Yoon Suk Yeol, the conservative opposition candidate who locked in a tight race with Lee Jae-myung ahead of Wednesday’s vote, issued a statement on Facebook wishing for Song’s quick recovery. "Any action of violence that disrupts an election cannot be justified," said Yoon.

The attack is the latest development of a bitter presidential campaign that has showcased Korea's political divide. Opinion surveys show that both candidates have more critics than supporters.

The country is divided with South Korean regional rivalries, views on North Korea, a conflict between generations, economic inequality and women's rights issues.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic harming its economy, South Korea is stuck between the competition of the United States and China, the former being its main ally and the latter its main trade partner, while facing threats by North Korea with their weapon tests.

The conservative party advocates for a stronger alliance with the United States and a tougher line on North Korea, also crediting past authoritarian rulers for quickly developing the economy after the Korean War. The Democratic Party is critical of past authoritarian rulers' human rights records and wants a rapprochement with North Korea and an equal footing in relations with the United States.

Tied presidential candidates and bitter campaigns

Both candidates are running for President in an extremely tied race with an uncertain result. But the presidential campaign has also seen unprecedented levels of lawsuits and toxic rhetoric while early voting has already shown irregularities.

Yoon has slammed Lee over his possible ties to an allegedly corrupt land development scandal, which Lee denied. In turn Lee has tried to link Yoon to the same scandal and separately criticized him for his reported ties to shamanism.

There have also been attacks on the candidates' wives, both of whom have been forced to apologize over separate scandals.

"Hitler", "Mussolini", "parasite", "beast", "dictator" were some of the words used to describe the opponent during the campaign.

"This year’s presidential election has been more overwhelmed by negative campaigning than any other previous election, and the mutual hatred won’t easily die down after the election," said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership.

Their respective campaign teams and supporters have filed dozens of lawsuits charging libel and the spread of false information.

South Korea’s deep divisions are reflected in the troubles of the last three leaders. They were submitted to  intense corruption investigations after they left office. A corruption probe of his family even pushed former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun to die by suicide in 2009, a year after he left office.

During a recent TV debate, Yoon and Lee agreed not to launch politically motivated investigations against the other side if they win. But some question their sincerity. There is widespread speculation that the loser will be arrested.

"We now have an election race like ‘Squid Game,’ but it will be a new president’s responsibility to pull us out of it," Cho Jinman, a professor at Seoul’s Duksung Women’s University, said.

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