A frightening scene in South Korea today when an elderly man set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. It happened during a protest by so-called “comfort women,” who were sexually abused by Japanese troops during World War II.
Local media reported that up to 2,000 people participated in the protest to demand Tokyo’s apology for forcing women into military brothels during World War Two.
At some point during the rally, an 81-year-old man set himself on fire. Photos from the scene show the man using his hands to cover his face, while flames are seen shooting from his body. Onlookers rushed over and started pouring water on him, to help extinguish the flames. Emergency workers rushed him to a hospital, but his injuries were not life-threatening, according to local media reports.
The comfort women are demanding that the Japanese government formally apologize and compensate them for the brutality they endured during the occupation. They’ve been gathering in front of the embassy, along with their supporters, every Wednesday since 1992.
Tokyo has argued, however, that the treaty signed by the two sides in 1965, “settled all wartime grievances and that it is under no obligation to address additional claims.”
Across the street from the embassy stands a statue of a young comfort woman dressed in traditional Korean garb. Today the statue was surrounded by South Korean women of all ages holding paper butterflies, the Daily Mail reported. Others pinned little yellow butterflies in their hair to represent the Butterfly Fund, which helps women across the world affected by wartime sexual violence.
A Seoul-based historian and author said, “Japan has apologized, but could apologize more, and that bit of resistance can sometimes inflame Korean sensibilities.” The Japanese embassy in Seoul has been the site of violent activism before. In 2012, a Chinese man was arrested after throwing Molotov cocktails at the compound. Six months later, a South Korean man rammed a pickup truck into its main gate, according to media reports.
August 15 will mark the 70th anniversary of South Korea’s independence from Japan. There are reportedly only 47 surviving comfort women.