I traveled to Gwangju after reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, translated into English by Deborah Smith. The novel, about the massacre of civilians in May 1980 by the military government, is told through the perspectives of various characters: a high school student named Dong-Ho who volunteers to identify corpses, the soul of the boy’s friend, a prisoner being interviewed years later by an academic, a factory girl subjected to torture, and Dong-Ho’s mother. It ends with an epilogue by Han Kang, who details her own experience and relationship with Dong-Ho, based on a real boy who died in the massacre.
It was a turbulent time in South Korea. After the assassination of longtime military dictator Park Chung Hee in 1979, army general Chun Doo-hwan seized the government and imposed martial law.
When students at Chonnam National University, located in Gwangju, protested against Chun’s power grab, troops fired on them on May 18, 1980. It prompted the wider Gwangju populace to take up arms to resist the government, which in turn claimed that this was an uprising by communist sympathizers. The ten-day struggle between incensed citizens and the military wounded thousands and killed at least 175 civilians (many suspect the actual number of casualties to be higher). Chun would continue to rule South Korea until 1988.
As a Korean-American, I finished the novel feeling conflicted. If I were solely Korean I would have felt outraged by this history, but if I were only American I might count it as merely one among many distant tragedies (despite claims of American complicity in what unfolded). Being both, my emotions were also caught somewhere in between. I wanted to feel personally affronted, yet that desire felt disingenuous because of my American nationality. Consequently I only felt a vague sense of loss.
I set off for Gwangju, hoping that something there would either trigger something dormant in my Korean blood or at least dispel the idea that people of Korean descent should feel connected to the traumas of their motherland.
It was only in retrospect that I realized I was doing what Han Kang did when she traveled to Gwangju to research her novel.
My family has no relation to Jelloa Province, and I was born in the U.S., after my parents immigrated from Seoul to California in the early ‘90s. Similarly, Han Kang did not participate in or lose any immediate family members to the Gwangju Massacre. Her family, originally from Gwangju, narrowly avoided tragedy by moving to Seoul four months before the incident. It is this proximity, the “if,” that drives her novel, which was inspired by Dong-Ho’s death, a 15-year old boy she knew only because he took her place in the house she vacated.
Human Acts powerfully communicates the stories of Gwangju because it’s spurred by a desire to imagine what happened to others and thereby honor their memories. It’s a Korean experience, but it’s not just a Korean experience. I realized that the question at the heart of my Korean-American dilemma — of how close I have to be to a historical event, physically, ethnically, or otherwise — might be less significant than I had thought.
What did it mean to remember an event neither of us, both Han Kang and I, had participated in? On translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith highlights the subtle differences in Korean verbs, which differentiate the agents of memory:
“Korean has two main verbs for ‘remember,’ one of which is a compound of the noun ‘memory’ and the verb ‘to do’ — remembering as active, willed, intentional. The second is altogether different. Its literal meaning is to ‘rise up’ or ‘(re)surface,’ and it can apply to anything that has been submerged or buried, like the bodies thrown into the reservoir immediately after the massacre, imperfectly weighted down. In this case, memory itself is the active agent, leaving the individual with little control over what or when they remember.”
Both Han Kang and I traveled to Gwangju in an act of remembering with the intention of tapping into a deeper emotion within ourselves. Like myself, she stood before sites of the massacre hoping something would emerge. She details this process in her epilogue, her determination clear on her first visit to Chonnam National University where the bodies were held for identification by family members:
“I’ll zip up my hooded top and stay here until the sun goes down. Until the outlines of the boy’s face solidify. Until I hear his voice in my mind. Until his retreating figure begins to hover over the invisible floorboards, flickering like a candle’s guttering flame.”
Put into words, these wishes may seem like an absurd expectation of the supernatural. And yet we visit memorials precisely to call forth something that “rises” from within. As I walked along, mound after mound covering bodies, what pained me most was the simple truth that people had died — the fact that they shared my ethnicity was secondary.
At the memorial, Han Kang watched video clips from the massacre displayed on loop — the same clips I viewed much later. In one clip, there is a boy whom she at first mistakenly believed to be Dong-Ho:
“The scene skipped on in a matter of seconds, so I stood and waited for the film to return to the beginning. I watched the whole thing two, three, four times. The boy’s face was every bit as generic, as mistakable as the one from the school records. I just couldn’t be sure. Perhaps, back then, boys with short hair in school uniform all looked much the same? Perhaps they all had such gentle single-lidded eyes. Such skinny gangling limbs, poised for the growth spurt into manhood.”
I watched the scene multiple times. At the time I was teaching English at an all-boys high school, and until then the ease with which I could imagine myself in their shoes had been a way to empathize — and imagine an alternate timeline had my parents not immigrated. I watched boys, beaten and shot, that resembled not only my students but my brother, cousins, and myself.
Underneath the screens, a display case held a bloodstained Korean flag that had belonged to the civilian protesters. When my eyes wandered from the screen to the tattered artifact, I felt a sharp reflex of anger and sorrow. As I stared at the rusty orange smears laden with agony, I began to piece together the significance of a single boy to Han Kang, and, to me, that of a flag that was not entirely my own.
What rises up, unfettered, in such moments of recollection is not some exclusive, ancestral anguish, as I had imagined it, but rather a shared sense of grief, understood no matter how disparate our experiences. Han Kang travels to Gwangju to tell Dong-Ho’s story, but also because it was possible to imagine herself in Dong-Ho’s place. She is able to imagine the range of voices captured in her novel, allowing readers to experience them too. Human Acts demonstrates the way the two agents of memory work together in a feedback loop, with the specific giving rise to the general, which then refuels a motivation to better understand the original trauma.
I may have been moved by the Korean flag because I am Korean-American and it embodied the cost of democracy in my ancestral home, but it is also equally possible that what held me there was more universal — the sight of blood spilled upon the flag’s white backdrop, originally meant to symbolize purity and peace. My act of remembrance began with names and facts, but ended with the rising of the “if”s that connect us.
It has been a year since President Moon Jae-in reopened the probe into the Gwangju Massacre. New discoveries into the extent of government involvement are still being made.
Human Acts hit bestseller lists in Korea and won the Malaparte Prize in 2017. Alongside its popularity, a film about the massacre, A Taxi Driver, was released last summer — following Moon’s first visit to the Gwangju memorial as president — and has become one of the ten most watched local films of all time, selling 12 million tickets. But former dictator Chun Doo-hwan remains free and unremorseful, after being pardoned from his death sentence in 1997. In a memoir released in April of last year, Hwan continues to deny his involvement in the massacre and insists he was “scapegoated.”
Taking the time to honor historical moments like Gwangju is not exclusive to those of Korean heritage. As I walked along the oval of graves lined with countless names in Gwangju, I saw dozens of students with their teachers, clutching ribbons fluttering with messages of solidarity. But I also saw a number of foreigners like myself who had traveled to this small corner of the world, moved not by nationality but by a desire to remember.
Cover image: the May 18th National Cemetery, where victims of the massacre have been buried (Credit: Eugene Lee)