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South Korean Political Leader Attacked at Rally

Park Geun-hye, who heads the opposition Grand National Party, suffers a 4-inch facial cut. Two men, one with a box cutter, are held.

May 21, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — South Korean opposition leader Park Geun-hye, perhaps the most prominent woman in the country, was slashed in the face Saturday night at a crowded rally for a Seoul mayoral candidate.

Police arrested two men, one who had a box cutter; both were said to be intoxicated.

The 54-year-old Park underwent emergency surgery to close a 4-inch-long wound running from her ear to her jawline. She was reported to be in good condition.

The attack outside a department store in the middle of Seoul was stunning in South Korea, a country that had experienced considerable political violence up to the 1980s but not in recent years.

Park is the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979. Five years earlier, her mother -- South Korea's first lady -- had been gunned down by an assassin.

"Korean politics used to be very nasty in the old days, but not now," said Michael Breen, a longtime Korea analyst and author of the book "The Koreans." "What you usually see in the way of political violence is staged, such as students throwing pebbles at rallies.

"You don't have willful brutality like women being slashed with box cutters."

It was unclear whether the attack was premeditated, police said.

However, Lee Ke-jin, an assemblyman and Park supporter, told the South Korean news agency Yonhap that "it appears to be election terror."

Video shot at the scene shows the smiling politician moving through a crowd as she prepares to mount a podium.

One can see the arm of a middle-aged man in a beige suit reaching out toward her face. Another man then apparently punches her in the face.

A third man who was with them ran away.

The news agency quoted police as saying the arrested men were drunk and shouting slogans such as, "Let's save our democracy" and "Long live the Republic of Korea."

But members of Park's Grand National Party complained that the police were using the suspects' alleged intoxication to play down the incident.

A rising star on the political scene, Park is an elegant and articulate figure who in effect served as first lady after her mother's assassination.

She has strong appeal for older South Koreans nostalgic for the days of Park Chung-hee's strong rule.

Park has headed the opposition Grand National Party since 2004 and is likely to run in next year's presidential election to succeed left-of-center President Roh Moo-hyun, who cannot run because of term limits.

The president's office strongly condemned the attack and promised a thorough investigation.

"Any form of election violence should not be tolerated," presidential spokesman Jung Tae-ho said.

Hotly contested local elections are scheduled May 31.

Park and other prominent figures from her party were appearing at a rally on behalf of Seoul mayoral candidate Oh Se-hoon in a busy shopping district of Seoul. The attack occurred about 7 p.m.

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