“When those wretched corpses were lying in the waiting room of the bus terminal, sprawled in front of the train station; when the soldiers fell upon passersby, beat them, stripped them to their underwear and forced them into a truck; when even the youths who’d stayed quietly at home were ferreted out and arrested; when the roads into the city were blockaded, and the phone lines were cut; when live shells were fired at crowds protesting with no other weapon than their naked bodies; when the main road became littered with a hundred corpses in the space of twenty minutes; when the rumor that the whole city would be massacred struck terror into the populace; when ordinary civilians gathered in twos and threes to defend the bridge and the local primary school, armed with the antiquated rifles they’d found at the army reserves’ training camp; when civil self-government was instated at the Provincial Office, after the authority of the central government had leaked away like an ebb tide.”
Human Acts is the award-winning novel by South Korean author Han Kang. Born and raised in Gwangju, she moved to Seoul at the age of 9, just prior to the timeline of events known as the Gwangju Uprising unfolding. The novel depicts the Democratic Uprising on the 18 May 1980 and its aftermath through the narrative of 6 interlinked characters, beginning with a 15-year-old boy named Kang Dong-ho. Kang Dong-ho was the third son of the family that moved into Han Kang’s old home in Gwangju after they left for Seoul, and his death is at the centre of how Han Kang portrays the devastating impact of the violent atrocities committed against the civilians of Gwangju.
Human Acts serves as a reminder of the events of 18 May 1980. Previously suppressed democratic uprisings began across the country in the aftermath of Park Chung-hee’s assassination, as students and citizens protested for democratisation, freedom of the press, human rights, and later the end to martial law as Army General Chun Doo-hwan seized military power over the country. As demonstrations continued, the army was deployed to many parts of the country. On the 18 May 1980, students of Jeonnam University protesting for democracy were met with barbarism as government troops fired bullets and beat them. The outrage against the violent acts - or as Han Kang described them in the title of her novel, “the human acts of which we are all capable” - led citizens to join the students in solidarity. What ensued was 10 days of violence where it is estimated over 2000 people lost their lives while many more were arrested and tortured by police in the aftermath of the Uprising.
Han Kang sets each character’s narrative in a timeline between the fateful day in 1980 to the present day, which serves to illustrate the long-lasting psychological wounds inflicted on the survivors of these turbulent times in South Korea. Their lives never quite return to normality as they try to come to terms with this immense suffering and trauma - as portrayed by an ex-prisoner many years after his release, “I’m fighting, alone, every day. I fight with the hell that I survived. I fight with the fact of my own humanity. I fight with the idea that death is the only way of escaping this fact.” Her writing and vivid description have the ability to educate people on this historical event and humanise the individuals behind the numbers fallen during the tragedy.