SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- The weekly protest rally demanding Japan's apology to victims of its wartime sex slavery marked its 1,400th edition Wednesday amid an escalating diplomatic and trade row between Seoul and Tokyo.
Nearly 20,000 activists, students and other citizens assembled to participate in the 27-year-old protest in front of the former compound of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul at noon.
Politicians, including Rep. Sim Sang-jung, head of the progressive Justice Party, and Rep. Nam In-soon for the ruling Democratic Party also attended the historic event.
"Thank you for coming in this sizzling heat. We will fight until we triumph," said Gil Won-ok, a surviving victim of the Japanese sex slavery, during the rally held on the eve of Liberation Day, which commemorates the end of the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial era.
This year's protest drew wide media attention due to high tensions between the two Asian neighbors over history issues.
Relations between the two neighboring countries have deteriorated rapidly as Japan recently imposed restrictions on exports to South Korea and removed it from a whitelist of trusted nations. The move was taken in apparent retaliation against South Korea's court rulings last year ordering Japanese firms to compensate victims of forced labor during the colonial era.
The rally also coincided with International Memorial Day for Comfort Women designated to commemorate the day when the late Kim Hak-sun, a former comfort woman, first publicly testified about Japan operating an organized military brothel program during World War II in 1991.
Since January 1992, local activists and victims of Japan's sexual slavery have staged street rallies in front of the former compound of the Japanese Embassy to Seoul every Wednesday to demand Tokyo offer a formal apology to former sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women."
Historians estimate the number of wartime sex slaves at up to 200,000, mostly from Korea. But there are only 20 survivors registered with the government.
Along with the main event in Seoul, the weekly "Wednesday rallies" took place in 57 other cities in South Korea and 12 countries, including the United States and Japan.
"Here, we have declared our will to create a peaceful world where we respect each other," said Yoon Mi-hyang, president of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a civic group advocating for the victims.
"We've learned the value of peace and human rights from the late Kim Bok-dong and Kim Hak-sun."
Kim Bok-dong was an iconic former sex slave and outspoken advocate against war violence, who died at age 93 in January.
The participants also called on the Japanese government to acknowledge its wartime crimes and offer a sincere apology.
"The Japanese government should stop undermining the reputation and human rights of the victims and acknowledge its wartime crime," they said in a statement.
Apart from the weekly protest, meanwhile, local civic groups and activists held demonstrations in Seoul, denouncing the Japanese government's "retaliatory" measures without apology for the past wrongdoings.