Man, 81, sets himself on fire at comfort women rally

People throwing water and a blanket over Mr Choi Hyun Yeol, in a bid to extinguish the flames after he set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul yesterday.
People throwing water and a blanket over Mr Choi Hyun Yeol, in a bid to extinguish the flames after he set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

An South Korean man in his 80s set himself on fire yesterday during a weekly protest outside the Japanese embassy in support of wartime sexual slavery victims.

The man, identified as Mr Choi Hyun Yeol, is said to be a regular face at the rallies in Seoul and would travel for hours from his home in the south-western city of Gwangju to join efforts to urge Japan to atone for its war crimes and compensate the victims - euphemistically called comfort women. He is known to be the son of an anti-Japanese freedom fighter.

Paramedics rushed the man to hospital, after people nearby had thrown water and a blanket over him. He is in a critical condition with third-degree burns to many parts of his body, according to local reports.

The gathering - the largest this year - came amid mounting pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to issue a formal apology ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Aug 15 marks Liberation Day for South Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years until the war ended in 1945.

Police said they found a red bag containing the 81-year-old man's identity card and a statement, but did not reveal what he had written. Investigations are ongoing.

About 1,000 people, mostly students, had joined three comfort women yesterday in demanding an apology and compensation from Japan for its wartime atrocities.

The comfort women issue has caused tension between South Korea and Japan, which has denied that the women were forced into sexual slavery.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye said last week that the upcoming anniversary may be the last chance for Japan to resolve the issue. Until that happens, she will not agree to a summit with Japan.

Student Choi Go Eun, 16, skipped classes yesterday to join the rally with a friend. She said she was an ambassador for global female rights and went to support the comfort women victims.

"We will help you, so please cheer up and continue to fight until the Japanese government apologises to you," she told the protesters.

Officially named Wednesday Demonstration, the event was started in January 1992 by civic group Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. It has since been held more than 1,100 times.

Yesterday's event featured speeches, performances by students and a fund-raising segment.

One of the victims, Ms Lee Yong Soo, 88, said she would continue to participate in the rally for as long as she could. "Whether it's another 23 or 24 years, rain or shine, hot or cold, I'll be sitting here demanding an apology and compensation. I'm doing this not just as a victim, but also for world peace and I'll persevere until the end."

Historians estimate that more than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were forced to work in military brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Of the 238 women registered with the South Korean government, only 47 are still alive. Most of them are in their late 80s and 90s. Eight died this year, the latest being Ms Park Yoo Nyun, 93, who served in a Singapore military brothel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2015, with the headline 'Man, 81, sets himself on fire at comfort women rally'. Print Edition | Subscribe