A South Korean Buddhist monk was unconscious and in a “critical condition” early Sunday after setting himself on fire during the latest of Seoul’s otherwise peaceful series of anti-government rallies.
Police confirmed 64-year-old Ven. Jungwon attempted to self-immolate at about 10.30 p.m. Saturday (1330GMT) close to Gwanghwamun Square.
Gwanghwamun has become a focal point for the recent protest movement against impeached President Park Geun-hye.
According to The Korea Times, he left a memo at the scene demanding the nullification of a contentious 2015 agreement between the South and Japan to compensate former “comfort women”, referring to the now elderly victims of Tokyo’s colonial era sex slavery.
“Please don’t make my death worthless,” he wrote, while also echoing wider calls for the president to bear responsibility for South Korea’s ongoing power abuse scandal.
With the monk reportedly suffered third-degree burns to most of his body, a lawmaker representing an anti-Park civic group revealed his “heart, lung, kidneys and liver are not functioning normally”.
Seoul celebrated its deal with Tokyo just over a year ago after seemingly hopeless rounds of negotiations aimed at resolving the sex slavery issue — a persistent thorn in ties with the nation that ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Japan promised to pay one billion yen ($8.5 million) through a fund for dozens of South Korean surviving “comfort women” — but some of the victims were joined by civic groups and lawmakers in claiming the agreement lacked a legal basis.
Amid reports that Tokyo has been pressing the South to move a statue commemorating “comfort women” near its Seoul embassy, activists managed to erect a similar monument in the southeastern city of Busan late last month.
That act prompted Japan to pull out its senior diplomats home from South Korea.
They are expected to head home early this week in the strongest display of Tokyo’s disapproval since Japan’s ambassador to the South was recalled in 2012 following a visit by former President Lee Myung-bak to disputed islets between the two countries.
Local media outlets cite historians who estimate that up to 200,000 women — mostly Koreans — were forced to become “comfort women” during Japan’s twentieth century age of militarist expansion.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been repeatedly accused of failing to show repentance, but he implied in an interview broadcast by NHK Sunday that Seoul must act with honor after allowing the installation of the Busan statue.
Abe’s comment that fulfilling the 2015 deal is “a matter of credibility” suggests South Korea may have in fact agreed to remove the Seoul “comfort women” statue.
With Park now going through impeachment proceedings, the South may undergo a significant shift in its Tokyo policy — although the current administration under acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn did express regret Friday that Japan has reacted so sternly to what happened in Busan.