Not Only K-Pop: Introducing Korean Literature
Until recently, most people living outside Korea knew next to nothing about it—other than, perhaps, that there was a war there in the 1950s. Many did not know where it was. Koreans traveling overseas were constantly asked if they were Chinese or Japanese.
Then, a few years ago, there was some alarm in the media about North Korea having missiles and developing atomic weapons. At the same time, the world’s younger generations were falling under the spell of “K-pop,” which made some want to learn the Korean language and visit (South) Korea. Others were fascinated by Korean movies, especially after Parasite won several Oscars. Still others were reading work from Korean authors—ranging from thrillers to award-winning novels such as Please Look After Mom and The Vegetarian.
In K-pop, films, and novels, South Korea appears to be a very modern place, not so different from any other developed country. Yet, in many of these contemporary works (and even in a few K-pop ballads), we sense dramatic, agonizing undercurrents. These undercurrents are impossible to understand without knowing what has happened in Korea over the past hundred years.
Historical Background: Korea from the Kingdoms Period to the Korean War
Korea is a rectangular peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the sea, with China to the west and north, Russian Siberia to the northeast, and Japan to the southeast.
Today, the peninsula is divided into two nations: the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, and the People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea. For nearly fifteen hundred years, the whole peninsula was a single kingdom, ruled by a king—until 1910, when Japan took complete control of the country. This colonial occupation lasted until 1945, when the Pacific War ended and Japan was obliged to give up all its occupied territories.
The wartime allies had already decided that the Korean people would require time to be able to govern themselves. They therefore decided that they would have to supervise the transition and that they would share the task, the Soviet Union under Stalin being responsible for the northern half, the United States for the southern half, with the 38th parallel serving as a demarcation line.
This arrangement did not take into account any wishes that Koreans might have for their future. While the USSR favored the establishment of a Communist party to take control in the North, the USA took over the South with the idea of preparing democratic elections. Thousands of Koreans found themselves on the wrong side of the 38th parallel—supporters of a socialist system in the South, ardent Christians in the North—and a great shift of populations began. The South and North established rival governments, each claiming to be the government of the entire Korean peninsula.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed into South Korea, in response to which the United Nations asked the United States to support the democratically elected government of South Korea. The result was the Korean War.
This three-year conflict existed not only between armies, but also between rival ideologies: hundreds of thousands of civilians were summarily executed in the North and South, labeled “capitalist landowners” or “commie bastards.” Other civilians died of starvation or were caught in the fighting—of the estimated three million who died during the war years, a minority were soldiers.
The end of the war did not bring real peace, but only an “armistice.” The DMZ (demilitarized zone) between South and North became an absolute border that none could cross, and the two halves of Korea set out on very different paths with almost no contact.
Modern History and Literature
At the end of the Korean War, both halves of the peninsula were disaster areas, with cities ruined, populations displaced, industry virtually defunct, and people living in utter poverty. Yet, in the course of only a few decades, South Korea was able to become a vibrant, developed country with advanced technology, and some of the highest Internet connectivity in the world. How did this happen?
From the 1960s to the 1990s, South Korea was controlled by military dictators, former generals who used force to control the population. It was under Park Chung-Hee, from 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979, that Korea began to industrialize and modernize. Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in 1980, brutally suppressed a popular uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju, resulting in numerous deaths. (A memoir in this unit, Jeon Sungtae's "A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart," pays tribute to the lasting effects of the "Gwangju Massacre" on a generation of young people.)
These dictators also supported the growth of large business conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. Needing workers, the conglomerates brought hundreds of thousands of young families into the cities, lodging them in old-fashioned, single-story houses. Often, an entire family would live in a single room.
Laboring long hours in factories and sweatshops, six or seven days a week, workers received low wages and no overtime pay. They managed to eke out an existence only because the government controlled the price of rice, which was their main food. Koreans were proud of their nation’s progress and were for a long time prepared to make such sacrifices. In return, living standards rose, and absolute poverty was slowly eliminated.
Gradually, this economic growth began to spur social change; Korea was increasingly becoming an international player, and the 1988 Olympic Games, held in Seoul, served as a turning point.
For the first time since the Korean War, the eyes of the world were focused on South Korea. By that time, towering office buildings were beginning to appear on the streets of Seoul, and a significant number of wealthy people were already living in luxurious high-rise apartments.
And at the beginning of 1989, another major change took place, although few people noticed it at the time. For the first time ever, ordinary Koreans were allowed to travel abroad for pleasure. In earlier years, many Koreans had immigrated to the U.S. or other countries in search of work. Now, they began to travel abroad as tourists.
This change is reflected in Young-ha Kim’s "The Suit," one of the stories within the “Fathers” section of this online collection. The main character's father long ago left Korea for the United States. After the father dies, his adult son travels to New York to claim his ashes. The dead father—whom the son barely knew—becomes even more of an enigma when a second Korean man appears, also claiming to be his son. Since the father was radically absent from both men's lives, how can they possibly determine paternity?
Likewise, in “Ascending Scales” by the popular younger writer Ae-ran Kim, there is very little mention of the father, apart from his disastrous business venture. The main character, her sister, her mother, even the inanimate piano—all of these have more significance than the unfortunate father.
Finally, in Kim Bi’s “Tree of Kisses,” we have a father who lives with his daughter and cares for her. The girl’s feelings toward her father seem mysteriously ambivalent, until we gradually learn that he spends the nights outside dressed as a woman. In the dramatic climax, the father suffers a beating at the hands of an unexpected assailant, and the daughter finds herself caught in a newly complicated family drama. "Tree of Kisses" reminds us that despite the great achievements of LGBTQ activists over the past twenty years, much of Korea remains intensely hostile to sexual minorities, even as the story demonstrates the possibility of change in the minds of individuals like the daughter.
Food matters a lot in South Korea, which currently has more restaurants than the entire United States at a fraction of its land mass and population. Yet, until quite recently, an average Korean's daily meals—if he or she were lucky enough to have sufficient food— consisted mainly of a heaping bowl of rice, a serving of spicy kimchi made using cabbage or radish, and soup made with soy bean paste.
As soon as spring came, villagers gathered wild plants on hillsides and served them as extra side dishes. For sweet treats, people made rice cakes at home. In the “old days,” meat was almost unknown, except perhaps for special festivals.
Urban life offered more shops. One of the great delights in the years following the Korean War was the bakery, which sold various kinds of bread and cake, usually sweet and filling. Equally enticing were Chinese restaurants, which offered exotic, tasty food at mostly reasonable prices.
Later, as the standard of living improved during the 1980s, Koreans discovered the delights of meat, mostly pork or beef, barbecued at the table. For special occasions, people also began to visit expensive raw-fish restaurants at the seaside or in major cities. Moving into the twenty-first century, Korea rose to international standards of gastronomy, with many Vietnamese, Thai, and Italian restaurants for people with exotic tastes—but for young people, nothing could rival the hamburger with French fries. Meanwhile, coffee shops multiplied more rapidly than anyone could keep count.
Two of the texts in the “Food” section look back, evoking traditional Korean food, with the poet Kim Sa-in recalling the tasty, homemade “Injeolmi Rice Cakes” of his rural childhood and the young novelist Jeon Sungtae’s "A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart"* depicting the simple vegetarian food still served in remote hillside Buddhist temples.
The past is more subtly present in Koo Byung-Mo’s “Wizard Bakery.” Behind that story's contemporary fantasy lurks the old Korean (and Chinese) idea that food has quasi-magical healing properties: certain foods are thought to have stamina-building properties or are recommended for particular illnesses or for particular seasons. During the summer, for example, there are three special days when everyone tries to eat boiled chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng to ward off the heat.
Based on its title, Han Kang’s Booker Prize–winning The Vegetarian may sound like an innocuous tale of a healthy eater—but the novel is instead a dark, fierce, and painful account of the effects of a troubled woman's sudden refusal to eat meat. The woman's husband sees her refusal as a challenge to traditional values: for him, as for many Koreans, meat is an essential staple, often enjoyed in restaurants where large groups of men consume large quantities of barbecued pork or beef and drink soju, a strong liquor. (They may have little choice in the matter: like the mandatory overtime imposed on the Korean factory workers of the previous generation, after-work drinking parties were long de facto obligatory for office workers.)
Traditionally, the wives of such office workers were expected to stay home looking after the house and the young children. As birthrates fell through the 1990s, more and more women began to suffer from long hours of solitude and boredom. By the mid-1990s, this alienation had become one of the main themes of a young generation of women writers. In The Vegetarian, this alienation takes on a new form: the rejection of "normal" eating habits. An excerpt of a pivotal chapter appears in this unit.
To understand modern love in Korea, it is first necessary to look back at the past. In traditional Korean society, a woman’s marriage was decided by her family, and the couple, still often in their early teens, had no say in the choice of a partner. Marriages were always arranged and often celebrated while the couple were still children. The first time they met was at the wedding ceremony, when the bride was not supposed to open her eyes or look up to see the face of her future husband. In Confucian terms, the husband and the father were—like the king—absolute rulers.
Japanese translations of Western novels helped Koreans discover a world in which women (and men) had agency over their marital choices: a startlingly new concept. This new idea also helped launch the figure of the Korean "New Woman," who tried to exercise personal freedom, and whose often tragic destiny was depicted in a series of major novels.
Today, although much has changed, relationships between men and women are far from easy. It is still very common for a Korean man to ask his family to find a “suitable” bride for him; and both partners often arrive at marriage with unrealistic expectations, to the delight of divorce lawyers.
Perhaps that is why none of the literature in the section “Love Stories” takes place in modern Korea. The excerpt from Choi Jin-young’s post-apocalyptic To the Warm Horizon belongs in the realm of science fiction, and the growing relationship between Dori and Jina develops in a context far from romantic. Likewise, “Genesis" by Jeon Sam-hye is set not in Korea but on the moon, after the world has been destroyed, and the narrator is writing an elegy for a lost relationship.
It is also notable that the two stories above depict love between women—albeit unrequited in the case of the lonely narrator of "Genesis." It is only recently that a few courageous Korean writers have begun to depict non-heteronormative love. In Korea, conformity to traditional social norms is greatly valued; not so long ago, young men and women were not even allowed to hold hands in public. There was no place for queer themes in mainstream literature. In contrast, strong platonic friendship was always possible between members of the same sex, whereas the gay community still encounters strong opposition.
Even today, there are few female writers, and even fewer male writers, who have dared to come out. The inclusion of the stories above, and of the poem “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” by Lee Hyemi, is an attempt to include this still largely closeted world. In the veiled but vivid symbolism of "The Cupboard," we witness the emergence of a new language, coded to evoke lesbian experience.
I’ll Be Right There is a major work by Kyung-sook Shin, whose Please Look After Mom sold a million copies in Korea, then went on to be one of the first Korean novels to become a worldwide best seller after it won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. But in the extract here we find a far-from-loving relationship, ending with a painful account of a near-rape. Love is rarely a “many-splendored thing” in Korean literature.
Many Koreans, even those born in a great city, have a nostalgia for a lost rural “home,” inspired by childhood visits to aging grandparents in remote villages at harvest festival time, Chuseok, or the lunar new year. These brief stays did not last long enough for visitors to experience the harshness of farming life, but there was time to sense the fact that the village was a living, human community where people shared work, joys, pains, and sorrows on a daily basis, where neighbors were really neighborly. In contrast, life in an urban apartment block where there is no contact with those living in the same block is seen as gravely lacking in humanity. Yet people in the past had no choice: they had to leave their home village in order to survive, whether during the war, as refugees, or later as young factory workers, and, for the least fortunate young women, bar girls or worse. Leaving home has been a necessity for South Koreans for many decades, and one can only wonder how North Koreans are able to live on, generation after generation, with nowhere to go outside their birthplace and their country.
In the section “Leaving Home,” the graphic oral history Grass opens with a rural family planning the adoption of the oldest daughter by another set of parents. In earlier times, farming families usually had many children: six, eight, or even more. Poverty often forced such families to put up children for adoption. Many Korean babies were sent abroad to affluent countries, but in Grass, the little girl will be living with a childless family in a large town. She thinks she will finally be able to go to school, but the drawings and text portend something much darker. The humorous poem “Earning My Keep,” by the popular poet Jeong Ho-Seung, has a lighter tone, but perhaps a similar attitude toward the future. It is in part a reflection of the challenges many Korean men faced as they left their village homes to find work in the cities, often facing hellish conditions.
Oh Jung-hee’s “Garden of My Childhood” takes us to the time when the Korean War was still raging and life was dreadfully difficult. The result is a strangely painful form of nostalgia, with memories of village life, poverty, and a troubled family recounted by a narrator who seems grateful simply to have survived—in part thanks to a stolen chicken.
“Tell Me Where to Go” by Kim Han-min, another work of graphic literature, is radically different from "Grass," a variety of science-fiction tale set far from Korea or any everyday reality. The fantasy world it evokes may be understood as a satire of the enthusiasm Koreans have developed in recent years for travel. Despite discomfort and danger, Koreans have been traveling to every remote corner of the world and becoming experts on the negative things awaiting them there, although “Cockroachification” is not usually mentioned. But perhaps after the current pandemic it might be?
"Tell Me . . ." might also be understood as an indictment of immigration policy. Korea is a very closed society, notorious for a refusal to welcome immigrants—asylum-seekers, in particular. Many young men from Southeast Asia come to Korea to work in small factories for low wages, but they are not allowed to stay for long, and certainly not to settle for good. In recent years, reporting on immigration has sometimes employed the term "Fortress Europe" to refer to highly restrictive policies on that continent; "Fortress Korea" may be equally apropos.
The fiction and poetry offered here are only a tiny sample of what exists, encompassing a few themes and fifteen writers. To give a sense of the larger picture, poetry has for centuries been immensely popular in Korea, and still today there are thousands of poets busily writing. A few become highly popular, and sell hundreds of thousands of books, but most poets are obliged to pay to have their work published, and then give copies to their friends.
In contrast, fiction reigns supreme, and over the last five years, a host of Korean psychological thrillers, as well as other novels, have been translated into multiple languages and published by major American and European presses. This means that Korea is now not only the home of K-pop but also of K-lit.
Hopefully, after you have read these selections, you will want to visit a good bookstore (an independent one!) and ask to see their stock of books from Korea. There is a lot waiting for you there. Some of what you read will feel familiar and some will seem quite foreign. Korea is a special country; it has endured a lot of pain over the last century, and the ways in which its writers write may not always seem familiar.
That is good. We need what is humanly and culturally different from ourselves in order to become more generously welcoming of others and their differences.
© 2020 by Brother Anthony. All rights reserved.
Educators, for a sample lesson plan from the unit, read Food in Fiction: A Sample Lesson Plan Based on Koo Byung-Mo's "Wizard Bakery." ---Eds.
This project is supported by the Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea).
The Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) is a South Korean public institution established with the mission of sharing Korean literature and culture with the world. LTI Korea provides services for writers, translators, publishers, and readers through various programs including translation and publication grants, domestic and international exchange, overseas promotion and educational courses in literary translation. More information on LTI Korea programs can be found at https://www.ltikorea.or.kr/en/main.do.