Man, 80, Sets Self on Fire Over WWII Brothels

He had joined protesters demanding apology from Japan for 'comfort women'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 12, 2015 8:50 AM CDT
Man, 80, Sets Self on Fire Over WWII Brothels
A South Korean man, left, sets himself on fire as a woman tries to extinguish him during an anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea today.   (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

For more than 20 years, South Korean activists have organized weekly protests in front of Seoul's Japanese Embassy to demand an apology for its women and girls who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II, reports the AP. But while those demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, that changed today after a self-immolation by an elderly man, Reuters reports. Choi Hyun-yeol (IDed as Choi Yeon-yeol by the AP), listed as being either 80 or 81, set himself on fire on a flower bed near the protest, and burned cotton and a small bottle of gasoline were reportedly found at the scene. Spectators put out the fire with protest banners and paramedics rushed Choi to the hospital, where he's in critical condition with third-degree burns to his face, neck, and upper body, per Reuters; the AP also notes he's having trouble breathing. "The patient is old and has severe burns, so his survival can't be guaranteed," a hospital rep says, per Reuters.

Today's protest was larger than usual in advance of Saturday's 70th anniversary of the end of Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people were estimated to have gathered, including three surviving "comfort women" who were forced into military brothels because, as the New York Times puts it, "Imperial Japan's military authorities believed sex was good for morale." Choi was said to be part of a civic group that speaks up for forced labor victims, Reuters notes, and though it's not clear why he set himself ablaze, a Seoul police official tells the AP a five-page note was found in his bag bashing Japan's wartime conduct. Self-immolation is just one extreme measure seen at these protests: Per the news agency, demonstrators have also cut off their own fingers and thrown excrement at the Japanese Embassy. (Mitsubishi recently apologized to a POW for using US troops as slave labor.)

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