An elderly South Korean man has set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul at a rally protesting the use of “comfort women” by occupying Japanese forces during World War II. Bloomberg reports that the man’s motive is unknown and that his injuries are not life threatening. The man, who has not been identified other than his surname Choi, set himself on fire in front of hundreds of people at the rally. Fellow protesters used blankets and protest placards to put out the fire.
The incident comes ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making a statement at the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the war. The issue of “comfort women” has long been a sore point between the governments of Japan and South Korea, who say that Japan has not done enough to compensate Korea for the practice. Japan, however, takes the position that the matter is settled and that the normalisation of diplomatic relations in 1965, which resulted in $800 million in reparations and loans, signalled the end of the issue, according to Business Insider.
The Japanese had colonial control over Korea from 1910 to 1945. There is a long and horrific catalogue of atrocities put at the door of the Japanese, including the sexual enslavement of thousands of Korean women, known as “comfort women.” Despite the official normalisation of ties, the issue has continually reared its head, blocking ordinary diplomatic traffic between the two countries and causing numerous and frequent protests, at some of which people have been known to set themselves on fire. It is thought that the majority of Korea’s population, despite having clear and accurate memories of Japan’s wartime conduct toward them, are not necessarily as incensed by the issue as Mr Choi. Professor Ho, a teacher of Japanese studies at one of Seoul’s universities, theorises that a hardcore of survivors are becoming more extreme as time passes.
“Signs of extremism are on the rise as some victims of Japan’s colonial rule grow older without their demands being resolved,” he said.
Other protesters at the weekly rally, including some former comfort women, recognised Mr Choi as an occasional attendee and an activist for the rights of all kinds of Koreans enslaved during the Japanese occupation and not just sex slaves. One former sex slave, Ms Lee Yong Soo, said that she did not advocate setting oneself on fire as a form of protest.
This is not the first time protesters have set themselves on fire. In 2005, another man set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in order to protest against Japan’s claims to the contested Dokdo islets. The practice of lighting oneself on fire has long been a recognised form of protest or suicide in East and South East Asia.
[Image via Sakaori]