Han Kang, the South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, was nine years old in 1979 when a new military regime came to power in South Korea after a coup. Her family had just sold their house in Gwangju, where she had been born and raised, and moved to Seoul. The family that purchased it had two sons. Han’s father, a teacher, knew the younger of the two, a fifteen-year-old middle school student named Dong-ho.
Less than a year after Han’s family settled in Seoul, over 250,000 citizens of Gwangju protested against the declaration of martial law by Chun Doo-hwan, the new military strongman. Chun was called “the Butcher” for his savage tactics against dissidents; he had been a protégé of his predecessor Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian and brutally repressive president who was assassinated by his own director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency. During the Gwangju Uprising, which historians have compared to the Paris Commune (1871) and Tiananmen Square protests (1989), Chun deployed highly skilled South Korean paratroopers—trained to fight North Koreans—against the citizens of Gwangju. For a couple of days these untrained people, some of them armed with weapons taken from local police stations, managed to hold back Chun’s soldiers and form a civilian government. This didn’t last.
On the pretext of preventing Communist infiltration from North Korea, under Chun’s directive and with the tacit consent of the Carter administration, paratroopers, including the 7th Special Warfare Corps—considered Chun’s private army—bayoneted, clubbed, and shot children, university students, and women and men of all ages. Lee Jae-eui, a Gwangju student protester who was imprisoned and tortured for his participation and who later wrote the most important account of the Gwangju Uprising, remembered that “even at the very beginning of the operation, the corps was brutal and cruel, as if they had a license to kill. These were the same soldiers who had crushed revolts in Pusan and Masan the year before.” Among those killed was Dong-ho, the younger son of the family that had moved into Han Kang’s childhood home.
The siege in Gwangju lasted ten days. The number of the dead and missing remains disputed. Some estimates cite as few as 165 deaths, others as many as nearly two thousand. Chun’s soldiers destroyed and hid the bodies of those killed, a fact his government later denied. The infamous National Security Law, still in force today in a modified form, prevented anyone from publicly disputing the government’s statements about the uprising.
Han’s novel Human Acts, set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising and spanning three decades, is a work of tremendous intellectual and philosophical ambition. It continues the inquiry into violence and self-determination that Han began in The Vegetarian, in which a housewife resists the strictures of her family life by gradually refusing to eat: a self-abnegation that literally diminishes her body.…
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