SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean protesters marched alongside the coffin of a "comfort women" campaigner to the Japanese embassy on Friday (Feb 1) in a protest over Japan's use of forced labour in its wartime brothels.
A hearse carried the casket of Madam Kim Bok-dong, who died this week, to the embassy to highlight the plight of comfort women, a Japanese euphemism for women who were forced into prostitution and sexually abused at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
"Japan must apologise," some of the protesters chanted during the march. "Japan provide formal compensation."
Mourners carried banners thanking Madam Kim, 93, for her devotion to the cause and called on Japan to atone for its actions. Some signs were in the shape of butterflies, a symbol of freedom for suffering women.
The comfort women are a contentious issue between the two Asian neighbours which share a bitter history stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Japan says the claims have been settled by past agreements and apologies, and that the continued dispute may threaten relations between the two countries.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo on Friday that it would be a problem if the event caused a “public disturbance” at the embassy or“infringement on its dignity.”
Madam Kim, who died in hospital after battling cancer, was one of the first victims to come forward in 1992 and became a fixture at weekly protests outside the Japanese embassy.
Madam Kim said she was 14 when she was first sent to a military brothel, and forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers also in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Madam Lee Yong-soo, a fellow victim who paid her respects despite the cold weather, laid flowers at a bronze statue of a girl erected near the Japanese embassy to represent the women.
Many mourners quietly sobbed and wiped their eyes as organisers aired a video clip in which Madam Kim shouted during a rally that she would raise similar girl statues around the world until Tokyo sincerely apologised.
A group of conservative activists, who argue the comfort women issue should be set aside to foster better ties with Japan, appeared at the embassy with South Korean flags.
"How dare they wave our precious national flags? They're the same people as those Japanese politicians who distort history," Madam Lee said as she sat next to the girl statue.
Articulate and charismatic, Madam Kim was a vocal critic of a 2015 deal in which Tokyo apologised to the victims and provided one billion yen (S$12 million) to a fund in Seoul to help them.
Madam Kim said the apology was not sincere because some Japanese leaders continued to deny the women were forced to work in brothels.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government has said it will not seek to renegotiate the 2015 deal. Last year, it vowed to shut down the Japan-sponsored fund and pursue a more "victim-oriented" approach.
With Madam Kim's death, only 23 registered South Korean survivors are still alive, underscoring a sense of urgency behind efforts by the women to receive a formal apology and legal compensation from Japan while their voices can still be heard.