Human Acts

  • onMarch 23, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byHan Kang
Human Acts
Tr. Deborah Smith

It wasn’t as though we didn’t know how overwhelmingly the army outnumbered us. But the strange thing was, it didn’t matter. Ever since the uprising began, I’d felt something coursing through me, as overwhelming as any army.


Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.

The day I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of my fellow civilians, staring down the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, the day the bodies of those first two slaughtered were placed in a handcart and pushed at the head of the column, I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, while the speaker in front of the Provincial Office was playing the national anthem, the soldiers opened fire. I’d been standing in the middle of the column of the demonstrators, but when the bullets came flying, I turned and ran. That sublime feeling that I’d been tapping into, that enormous heart I’d felt briefly a part of, was smashed to pieces, strewn over the ground as so much rubbish. And the gunfire wasn’t only in the square; snipers were also positioned on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. Beside me and in front of me people crumpled to the ground, but I kept on running. Only when I was sure I’d left the square far behind did I let myself stagger to a stop. I was so out of breath I genuinely thought my lungs would burst. My face a mask of sweat and tears, I sank to my knees on the steps leading up to a shop door. Its shutters were down. A small group had gathered in the street, and I heard them talking about raiding the police stations and reserves barracks to get guns. They were clearly made of much sterner stuff than I was. We’re sitting ducks like this. They’ll gun us down, the lot of us. Paratroopers even broke into the houses in my area. I was so scared I slept with a kitchen knife by my pillow. Shooting hundreds of rounds like that in broad daylight – I’m telling you, the world’s gone mad!

One of them jogged off to fetch his truck, and I stayed there slumped on the steps until he drove back. I thought about whether I really had it in me to carry a gun, to point it at a living person and pull the trigger.

It was already late at night by the time the truck I was riding in returned to the centre. We’d twice taken a wrong turn, and when we’d got to the barracks we’d found that the guns had already been looted, so it turned out to be a wasted trip. In the meantime, I had no way of knowing how many had fallen in the street fighting. All I remember is the entrance to the hospital the following morning, the seemingly never-ending line of people queuing up to give blood; the doctors and nurses striding through the blasted streets, white gowns bloodstained, hands gripping stretchers; the women who handed up stale rice balls, water and strawberries to the truck I was riding in; the strains of the national anthem, and ‘Arirang,’ which everyone was singing at the top of their voice. Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again. That was what captured me, what has stayed with me ever since. Have you even known it, professor – that terrifying intensity, that feeling as if you yourself have undergone some kind of alchemy, been purified, made wholly virtuous? The brilliance of that moment, the dazzling purity of conscience.

It’s possible that the kids who stayed behind at the Provincial Office that day experienced something similar. Perhaps they would have considered even death a fair exchange for that jewel of conscience. But no such certainty is possible now. Kids crouching beneath the windows, fumbling with their guns and complaining that they were hungry, asking if it was okay for them to quickly run back and fetch the sponge cake and Fanta they’d left in the conference room; what could they possibly have known about death that would have enabled them to make such a choice?

When the announcement came over the wireless that the army would reach the Provincial Office within the next ten minutes, Jin-su propped his gun against the wall, stood up and said, ‘It’s possible that we could hold out until the morning and run the risk of dying in the process, but that’s not an option for the youngsters here.’ For all the world as though he himself were a seasoned adult of thirty or forty, rather than a boy barely out of school. ‘We have no choice but to surrender. If death seems the only other outcome, put down your guns and surrender right away. Look for a way to live.’


I don’t want to talk about what happened next.

There is no one now who has the right to ask me to remember any more, and that includes you, professor.

No, none of us fired our guns.

None of us killed anybody.

Even when the soldiers stormed up the stairs and emerged towards us out of the darkness, none of our group fired their guns. It was impossible for them to pull the trigger knowing that a person would die if they did so. They were children. We had handed out guns to children. Guns they were not capable of firing.


I found out later that the army had been provided with eight hundred thousand rounds that day. This was at a time when the population of the city stood at four hundred thousand. In other words, they had been given the means to drive a bullet into the body of every person in the city twice over. I genuinely believe that, if something had come up, the commanding officers would have issued the order for the troops on the ground to do just that. If we’d all done as the student representatives said, piled our guns in the lobby of the Provincial Office and attempted a clean surrender, we would have run the risk of the soldiers turning those same weapons on unarmed civilians. Every time I recall the blood that flowed in the small hours of that night – literally flowed, gushing over the stairs in the pitch dark – it strikes me that those deaths did not belong solely to those who died. Rather, they were a substitute for the deaths of others. Many thousands of deaths, many thousands of hearts’ worth of blood.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see blood silently seeping from people I’d been speaking with mere moments before. Unable to tell who had died and who survived, I lay prone in the corridor, my face pressed into the floor. I felt someone write on my back with a magic marker. Violent element. Possession of firearms. That was what someone else informed me was written there, afterwards when they threw us into the cells at the military academy.

reallyGood murder #CAI1701, 2010 © NOH Suntag


Those who hadn’t been carrying a gun at the time of their arrest were classified as mere accomplices, and were released in batches up until June, leaving only the so-called ‘violent elements’, those who had been caught in possession of firearms, still in the military academy. That was when the programme of torture entered a different phase. Rather than brutal beatings, our captors now chose more elaborate methods of inflicting pain, methods that would not be too physically taxing for them. ‘Hairpin torture’, where both arms were tied behind the back and a large piece of wood inserted between the bound wrists and the small of the back; waterboarding; electric torture; the method known as the ‘roast chicken’, which involved trussing the victim with ropes and suspending them from the ceiling, where they were then beaten while being spun around. Before, they’d tortured us in order to extract the particulars of actual crimes. Now, all they wanted was a false confession, so that our names could be slotted neatly into the script they had already devised.

Kim Jin-su and I continued to receive a single tray and share its scant meal between us. It took an enormous feat of will to put what we’d experienced a few hours ago in the interrogation room behind us and wield our spoons in stony silence, fighting the temptation to scrap like animals over a grain of rice, a shred of kimchi. There was one man who knocked his meal tray over and screamed, I can’t take any more of this! What’s going to happen to me if you shovel the whole lot down yourself? As he grappled with his partner, a boy pushed between them and stuttered, D-don’t do that. I was taken aback; this was the first time I’d ever seen that quiet, shy-seeming kid open his mouth.

W-we were r-ready to die, you know.

It was then that Kim Jin-su’s empty gaze rose to meet mine.

At that moment, I realised what all this was for. The words that this torture and starvation were intended to elicit. We will make you realise how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.

The boy with the stutter was called Yeong-chae. It was a name Kim Jin-su pronounced frequently in the afternoons following that initial altercation. In the ten or so minutes after the meal, which was when the guard tended to relax his vigilance, he would address the boy in a soft, friendly tone. You must be hungry, Yeong-chae, no? Kim Yeong-chae, where’s your family from? I’m a Gimhae Kim too. Which branch? You’re fifteen, right, well then, no need for honorifics with me. I’m only four years older than you at the most. I don’t look my age, do I? Oh, well, all right. Call me uncle, then. We’re distant relatives, after all.

From listening in to their conversation, I learned that the boy hadn’t continued his education beyond middle school, and was learning carpentry at his uncle’s woodworking shop. He’d joined the civilian militia to follow in the footsteps of this uncle’s son, who was two years older; this cousin, to whom he’d always looked up, had been killed that final night at the YMCA. I-I l-like to eat sp-sponge cake the best. W-with S-sprite. Yeong-chae’s eyes stayed dry while he told the story of his dead cousin, but when Jin-su asked him what his favourite food was he had to scrub at them with his fists. With his right fist, that is. His left remained in his lap. I stared at it, at the cotton wool poking out from between those clenched fingers.


I was constantly racking my brains.

Because I wanted to understand.

Somehow or other, I needed to make sense of what I’d experienced.

Watery discharge and sticky pus, foul saliva, blood, tears and snot, piss and shit that soiled your pants. That was all that was left to me. No, that was what I myself had been reduced to. I was nothing but the sum of those parts. The lump of rotting meat from which they oozed was the only ‘me’ there was.

Even now I find summer difficult to endure. When runnels of sweat trickle down over my chest and back, itching like the bite of insect mouths, that time when I was nothing but a lump of meat is suddenly back with me, the feeling unchanged, and I have to take a deep, steady breath. Grind my teeth together, and take another deep, steady breath.


When a square wooden cudgel is squeezed in between my shoulder blades, manipulated so that my screaming joints are forced as far apart as the physical composition of my body will possibly allow, when this body writhes and contorts and the words spew from its lips, for God’s sake, stop, I did wrong, seconds strung together with jerked, juddering gasps, when they insert a drill bit beneath my fingernails and toenails, shuddered-in breath spat out in a rush, for God’s sake stop, I did wrong, seconds patched with broken groans, rising into a wail, make this body disappear, please, for God’s sake, just wipe it off the face of the earth

pp. 120–128

reallyGood murder #CAI1701, 2010 © NOH Suntag


Copyright © 2014 by Han Kang.
Translation copyright © 2016 by Deborah Smith.
Reprinted with permission from Portobello Books.

Author's Profile

Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).