Our hotel is mere steps away from Geumnam-ro, the main thoroughfare in Gwangju, South Korea. We’re in this city because of a novel written by Han Kang. Human Acts documents 9 days in May 1980 when a student-led democracy movement was brutally suppressed by the military junta then in power.
7 years later, in 1987, the Gwangju Uprising resulted in the democratization of South Korea. I want to see how a fictional account of the past aligns with reality in the streets of Gwangju today.
Choonho is a native of Gwangju. He was 10 years old during the Gwangju Uprising. I can imagine how a boy that age would be drawn to the excitement. The torchlit marches, young men and women singing in the streets, the stirring speeches. Choonho remembers his boyish excitement but also how frightened his father was.
That fear was not unfounded. After the suffering of the Korean War, the South Koreans believed democracy would be their reward. Instead, dictators ruled the country. There was no reason to expect the government to bow to demands for democracy.
Students demonstrated anyway. And when the army moved in to quell the action, they formed a Citizens’ Army to defend themselves and their community.
Human Acts is narrated by multiple characters, most of whom are eyewitnesses to the events of May 1980. Two of those narrators are boys like Choonho. These boys go out to sneak a peek at the action and lose each other in the commotion. One of the boys attaches himself to volunteers working at the makeshift morgue, the local high school gym. The boy knows that his friend will show up here, sooner or later.
It’s a beautiful autumn day when we arrive at the former Jeonnam Provincial Office. This is where the Citizens’ Army made its last stand. The students realized, sometime during the night of May 27, that their uprising was about to be crushed. Yet the building looks so quiet and the area so serene. The only odd thing is the fountain in front that seems to be dry.
The 5-18 Archive is located a little ways up Geumnam-ro where the Catholic Center once stood. From the top floor of that building, the Archbishop of Gwangju watched as paratroopers killed demonstrators with batons and bayonets. From the window of his former bedroom, you can see our hotel, too.
School groups swarm through the four floors of exhibits at the 5-18 Archive. These are teenagers wielding cell phones. You’d expect them to be glued to their screens or otherwise taking advantage of a day out of the classroom. Instead, they walk slowly and silently through the exhibits. Maybe they realize that they’re the same age as the demonstrators.
The 5-18 Archives celebrate the ultimate success of the Gwangju Uprising and understandably so. The dead did not die in vain. Moreover, South Korea led the wave of pro-democracy movements in Taiwan, the Philippines, and China.
If the road to Asian democracy starts in Gwangju in 1980, it ends at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since then, no other Asian democracy movement has succeeded and, in countries like Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, autocratic rule is on the rise.
It’s not hard to see the parallels between the Gwangju Uprising and the current situation in Hong Kong. Choonho is the first to make the comparison. Students return to the streets of Hong Kong day after day. The government response becomes increasingly violent.
Just as in Gwangju 40 years ago or Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, there is no reason to think an autocratic government like Beijing will bow today to the demands of demonstrators.