By Dagyum Ji and Ju-min Park
A 80-year old South Korean set himself on fire on Wednesday during a protest calling for Japan to apologise for forcing Korean girls and women to work in military brothels during World War Two, days ahead of the anniversary of the end of hostilities.
The self-immolation occurred during a regular weekly demonstration outside the Japanese embassy ahead of the Aug. 15 anniversary marking 70 years since the end of Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula.
With the anniversary looming, Wednesday’s protest was larger than usual, with about 2,000 demonstrators, including three of the 47 known surviving Korean “comfort women”, as they were euphemistically called by Japan, organisers said.
Bystanders covered the man with protest banners to put out the flames and paramedics took him to hospital.
The man, identified as Choi Hyun-yeol by a civic group with which he was affiliated, was in critical condition with burns to his neck, face, and upper torso, a hospital professor said.
“The patient is old and has severe burns so his survival can’t be guaranteed,” the professor told reporters.
Choi’s father was a member of an anti-Japanese independence movement in 1932 and jailed for a year, according to a statement posted online by the civic group, which advocates for the rights of forced labour victims. Choi became a supporter of the group last year.
In South Korea, Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula remains a sensitive subject.
South Korea’s ties with Japan have long been strained by what Seoul sees as Japanese leaders’ reluctance to atone for the country’s wartime past, including a full recognition of its role in forcing Korean girls and women to work in brothels.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may hope to lay the ghosts to rest with a statement on Friday marking the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, but risks inflaming tension instead.
Abe is expected to express “deep remorse” in his comments.
But China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan’s past militarism run deep, want Abe to stick to a landmark 1995 “heartfelt apology” by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama for suffering caused by Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression”.
Abe himself wants to keep a thaw in Sino-Japanese ties on track ahead of a possible visit to Beijing.
He also needs to satisfy ally the United States, which is keen to see tension ease in a region where concern is rising over China’s military assertiveness.
Abe’s conservative supporters, however, want to end what they see as a humiliating cycle of apologies.
“What Abe has to do for smooth sailing is to say something his friends inside the Beltway can sell in Washington,” said Andrew Horvat, visiting professor at Josai International University in Tokyo, referring to Washington insiders.
“The Murayama Statement is the ‘gold standard’ but we know that Abe, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t want to say what the Murayama Statement said,” Horvat added.
“Abe will attempt to satisfy as many parties under the circumstances as possible.”
Abe has said he upholds past official remarks on the war, including the Murayama Statement and a 1993 apology to “comfort women”, as those forced into prostitution and sexually abused at Japan’s wartime military brothels are euphemistically known.
But Abe, who critics view as a revisionist who wants to play down Japan’s wartime acts, has stressed he wants to issue a forward-looking statement in his own words.
NHK public television said this week Abe would include the word “apology”. Other media said that touchy issue was still being worked out.
Abe will mention “colonial rule” and “aggression”, media said, but the reference to the latter could be a general criticism that does not single out Japan’s invasion of China.
Whatever Abe says, disputes over history are unlikely to fade any time soon, given dynamics in the region that sustain the feuds.
Governments in China and South Korea have often used anti-Japanese sentiment to win support, while Japanese conservative politicians periodically play to a base that includes atrocity deniers as well as those suffering from “apology fatigue”.
“History has not been laid to rest,” Horvat said.