Planned memorials to 18 Korean pilots who flew kamikaze missions for Japan in the Second World War have run into flak.
Opposition is growing from conservative residents who still harbour strong resentment against Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
For decades the suicide pilots been widely viewed as traitors at home.
The first memorial, a 16-foot-high stone edifice to Tak Kyung-hyun, is due to be unveiled in the south-eastern city of Sacheon on Saturday, the eve of his death 63 years ago.
He was killed when his explosives-laden plane crashed in the sea short of a US warship that was his target.
The project had attracted little controversy until a group of activists began demanding this week that the city cancel the opening ceremony, threatening to disrupt the event and take down the monument.
“He was a kamikaze, an aggressor,” said Lee Sun-bok, head of a group opposed to the memorial.
But Hong Jong-pil, a South Korean historian working on the memorial project, said the pilots should be seen as victims of the colonial period. He cited recent studies finding they did not volunteer for their suicide missions but were pressured or forced.
“It’s time to save those who have been lost in the black holes of history,” Hong said.
Sacheon City official Kim Tae-ju said his office is trying to convince the activists that the purpose of the memorial is to console war victims. But it remained uncertain whether the unveiling would go ahead as scheduled.
Kim said Sacheon is concerned possible violence could trigger diplomatic tension with Japan. Dozens of Japanese officials, tourists and journalists are scheduled to attend the opening event.
The state-run Korean Tourism Organisation is backing the memorial, which it plans to promote to Japanese tourists.
The project’s driving force is a Japanese actress who has long sought to foster friendship between Korea and her country.
“It’s something the Japanese should do,” said the 51-year-old Fukumi Kuroda who proposed the memorial and paid the bulk of the construction cost.
The South Korean government has refused to designate Korean kamikazes as colonial-era victims, denying their survivors the right to state compensation.