Photo by Lee Jin-man/AP
Warning: Graphic images below.An elderly South Korean man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire today during a protest demanding an apology from Japan for forcing women into military brothels during World War II.Bystanders moved quickly to smother the flames, but the man suffered third-degree burns on his face, neck, upper body, and arms. He has been relying on a breathing machine, according to an official at Seoul's Hallym University Medical Center, who did not want to be named, citing office rules.
The Yonhap news agency identified him as an 81-year-old South Korean.
The rally, held in front of the Japanese Embassy and attended by close to 1,000 people, was staged days before the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II that freed the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule.Kim Sun-min, who was among several people who ran over to help put out the flames, said he didn't notice the man before he self-immolated on a flowerbed near the rally. Lumps of burnt cotton and a small glass bottle that smelled of gasoline were found at the scene. The rally continued after the man was taken to the hospital.Related: South Korean 'Comfort Women' Threaten to Sue Japan for $20 million in the USThe man's motives were not immediately clear. Activists have organized weekly protests since 1992 in front of the Japanese Embassy to demand justice for South Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during the war, and the gatherings have been mostly peaceful. The turnout was particularly high on Wednesday as the countries approached the anniversary.Many South Koreans harbor deep resentment against Japan over its colonial occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work in slave-labor conditions, or serve as prostitutes.
Yet the protests can turn violent and in the past demonstrators have severed their own fingers or hurled excrement at the embassy.
A bilateral agreement in 1965 restored diplomatic ties between the two nations and saw Tokyo make a total payment of $800 million in grants or loans to its former colony. However, relations remain strained, with South Korean President Park Geun-hye saying there can be no meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until Japan makes full amends.Related: South Korea says North Will Pay 'Pitiless Penalty' for Maiming its Soldiers with Land MinesThis sentiment has strengthened in recent years over what many South Koreans feel are Tokyo's attempts to downplay its wartime conduct and also its territorial claims over a set of small islets occupied by South Korea.Abe is expected to express "deep remorse" for Japan's wartime aggression in a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the country's World War Two defeat later this week.The Associated Press contributed to this report.