South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung speaks during a press conference in Seoul on April 11, 2023. Lee Jae-myung was attacked on January 2, 2024 while talking to reporters in the port city of Busan, Yonhap news agency reported. Image Credit: AFP

Seoul: South Korea's opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southern city of Busan on Tuesday and was airlifted to a university hospital for treatment, party and fire officials said.

Lee, who narrowly lost the 2022 presidential election, was conscious and receiving emergency treatment after being attacked by an unidentified man while touring the site of a proposed airport, the officials told Reuters.

The attack left him with a gash of about 1 cm on his neck, YTN television reported.

The official from the Pusan National University Hospital said Lee had been transferred to Seoul after emergency treatment and CT scans.

Lee was airlifted by a fire department helicopter to the Pusan National University Hospital, a party official and emergency officials told Reuters.

"He is conscious and receiving treatment at the hospital," a Democratic Party official told Reuters.

The assailant appeared to be a man in his 50s or 60s, who wore a paper crown with Lee's name on it, news photographs showed.

The man approached and asked for an autograph as Lee spoke among a throng of supporters and reporters, then lunged forward and attacked him, video footage showed.

Jin Jeong-hwa, a Lee supporter who was at the scene livestreaming the event, told Reuters there were two dozen police officers present.

The assailant was quickly subdued by men including police officers, the footage showed.

He was refusing to answer police questions about his motives, daily Busan Ilbo reported.

Video clips on YTN television and another posted on the social media platform X showed a man lunging at Lee with his arm stretched out. Lee grimaced and collapsed to the ground.

News photographs showed Lee lying on the ground with his eyes closed and bleeding, and people pressing a handkerchief against his neck.

President Yoon Suk Yeol condemned the attack and instructed best care be given, his office said.

President condemns attack

"This type of violence must never be tolerated under any circumstances," his office quoted Yoon as saying.

A former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee narrowly lost to conservative Yoon, a former chief prosecutor, in the 2022 presidential election. He has led the main opposition party since August 2022.

Lee is currently on trial for alleged bribery stemming from a development project when he was mayor of Seongnam near Seoul.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

South Korea's next parliamentary elections are slated for April.

South Korea has a history of political violence although it has strict restrictions on gun possession. There is police presence at major events but political leaders are not normally under close security protection.

Lee's predecessor, Song Young-gil, was attacked in 2022 at a public event by an assailant who swung a blunt object against his head, causing a laceration.

Then conservative opposition party leader Park Geun-hye, who later served as president, was stabbed at an event in 2006 and suffered a gash on her faced that required surgery.

Her father, Park Chung-hee, who was president for 16 years after taking power in a military coup, was shot and killed by his disgruntled spy chief in 1979 at a drunken private dinner.

In 2015, then U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked by an assailant while attending a public event, suffering a large gash on his face.