The rally, in front of the Japanese Embassy and attended by hundreds of people, was staged days before the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, which freed the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule.
Kim Sun-min, one of several people who rushed over to put out the flames, said he hadn’t notice the man, identified by police as Choi Yeon-yeol, before he set himself ablaze on a flower bed. Lumps of burned cotton and a small, glass bottle that reeked of gasoline were found at the scene. The rally continued after Choi was hospitalised.
Choi suffered third-degree burns on his face, neck, upper body and arms, and was breathing via machine, after his lungs deteriorated, said an official at Seoul’s Hallym University Hangang Sacred Heart Hospital, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules.
Choi’s exact motives were not clear.
A five-page statement found in his bag, apparently written by him, condemned Japan over its stance on its colonial rule of Korea and wartime conduct, said Seoul police official, Seo Hyeon-su.
Since 1992, activists have organised weekly protests 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.
The gatherings have been mostly peaceful. The turnout was high on Wednesday, as the anniversary approached.
Many South Koreans resent Japan over its colonial occupation.
Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work under slave-labour conditions or serve as prostitutes in brothels operated by the Japanese military during the war.
Such sentiment has strengthened because of what South Koreans feel are attempts by Japan to downplay its wartime conduct, as well as Tokyo’s territorial claims to a set of small islets occupied by South Korea.