A Short History of Modern Korean Literature (part 1)


After dealing with the various discussions within South Korean scholarship on the emergence of Korea’s modern literature in earlier posts, and the almost unanimous agreement of Yi Kwangsu’s The Heartless as its very first product, I will now turn to a short historical overview of the literature that came afterwards.

In the period that Yi Kwangsu’s story came out, cultural and political life within Korean society had been severely restricted by the Japanese colonizer. Privately run newspapers were forced to closed down and the largest pre-colonial newspaper, the Korea Daily News (Taehan Maeil Shinbo 대한매일신보), became a state organ.
Strict rules on publication and censorship were established through the 1907 Newspaper Law and the 1909 Publication Law, made it very difficult to obtain a publishing permit.

Putting the lid on Korean intellectuals’ freedom of expression was an important cause for the 1919 March 1st Uprising. Even though the protests didn’t lead to a hoped for regaining of national sovereignty, it did lead to change in the cultural sphere.
The Cultural Policy was proclaimed in 1920, making it easier for Korean intellectuals to publish and voice their opinions. Immediately a publishing boom was visible, with 409 permits being given for the publication of magazines and journals in 1920 alone. This was in sharp contrast to the 40 permits that had been given out in the whole 10 previous years.

With their newfound freedom of expression, an air of optimism reigned among the intellectuals as if a new era had begun for Korean society. For the colonial power, censoring and monitoring the huge output of these Korean views, was a difficult task. In the beginning, newspapers who had printed an article deemed to be unsuitable for the censor were to be deleted by replacing it with dashes or broken lines. (making the newspaper articles look like “bricks”) Since this kept the deleted and censored parts visible to the reader and alerted them to illicit passages in the text, this kind of censorhsip was later replaced with no visible deletion (passages would just be left out).

Brick newspaper

A so-called "Brick"-newspaper

The most serious issue for censors were related to 1) criticism of the emperor, 2) advocating class warfare, 3) revealing military information, or 4) criticism of the Government General.
Of course a cat-and-mouse game could be played with these censorship rules. Newspapers, for which it was too cumbersome to be screened before distribution, were permitted to start its print run before the issue went to the censor. In order to gain more readers, and establish itself as an anti-Japanese periodical, some newspapers would deliberately write articles that would surely be seized by the police. The trick then was to hire more delivery people and start printing earlier than usual, so that when the issue was banned, it would already be too late to seize them.

Poetry and serialized novels were almost exclusively to be found in the daily press and virtually all magazines and journals. With the repression of the previous years gone, a lively literature movement was established that soon split up into many different artistic and political groups.
The earlier tendency to translate Western literary works was continued by Kim Ǒk through his magazine Artistic and Literary News from the West (T’aesŏ Munye Sinbo, 1918).
In Tokyo, Kim Dong-in and other writers were influenced by Japanese realism and established the magazine Creation (Ch’angcho, 1920).
Romantic poets like Hwang Sŏk-u and Pak Chonghwa would publish their poetry in Rose Village (Changmich’on, 1921).

1920s magazines

The magazines White Tide, Ruins and Genesis

The magazines White Tide (Baekcho, 1920) and Ruins (P’yehŏ, 1920) were specifically set up for publishing “pure” literature, with the aim of making literature without a political or social reform ideological message, in reaction to the heavily didactic tone of earlier “enlightment” novels. Writers like Yŏm Sangsŏp and Kim Dong-in were experimenting with naturalist and romantic forms to establish such a view, of which Kim’s Potatoes (Kamcha, 1925) is one of the more famous stories in Korean literature.
Famous poems or poety collections from this period are Kim Sowŏl’s Azaleas (Chindallae-kkot, 1922) Yi Sanghwa’s Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields? (Ppeakkin ttŭr-edo bom-ŭi onŭnga?, 1926), Han Yong-un’s poetry collection The Silence of Love (Nim-ŭi Ch’immuk, 1926) and Sim Hun’s When that Day Comes (Kŭ nar-i omyŏn, never published during the colonial period due to censorship).

An important socialist literary group was established in 1925 with the KAPF (Korean Artists Proletarian Federation), whose aim it was to serve the cause of class liberation. They experimented with “socialist realism” to promote class consciousness among the intelligentsia and to expose the bad conditions of the minjung (proletarian masses). Cho Myŏnghŭi’s Nakdongkang River (Nakdongkan, 1927) and Yi Kiyŏng’s Fire Field (Hwajŏn) are prominent works in this regard. Since the advocation of class warfare was prohibited, this group had to deal with the constant harassment by the Japanese authorities, which many times led to strict surveillance, arrests, and heavy censorship.
Last but not least the magazine Genesis (Kaebyŏk, 1920) which was issued by the Ch’ŏndogyo religion, featured leftist literature, which sometimes featured stories by “New Tendency”(Shin Kyŏnghyang) leftists like Kim P’albong and Han Sŏrya, who deemed the poetry of romanticists like Yi Sanghwa and Hong Sayong to be too decadent.

Thus the 1920s can be seen as a very lively period in Korea’s literary history, although all these differing (political and literary) opinions and views would also be the genesis of the later (post-colonial) ideological differences that would appear on the peninsula.


Yi Bŏmsŏn – “An Aimless Bullet” (1959)


Yi Bŏmsŏn’s (1920-1981) short story “An Aimless Bullet” is rightfully among the best short stories ever written in Korea. In summary the story goes like this:

After the devastation of the Korean War, accountant Song Ch’ŏrho lives with his family in the poor slumps of Seoul the ‘Liberation Village’. It doesn’t matter how hard he works, he still does not earn enough money to make a living and care for his families needs. At home there are his mother, who has gone crazy because of the war and can only cry out to ‘go north’. His younger brother, who hasn’t been able to find a job for two years after returning from the army, his younger sister who has become a prostitute for American soldiers, and his wife and child.

He is suffering from a toothache, but cannot spare any money for a dentist. Meanwhile his brother is dreaming of becoming an instant millionaire by unlawful means. Not soon after their argument he gets a phone call from the police with the news that his brother has been arrested for robbery. Back home he hears that his wife has died while giving labor. After confirming her death, he aimlessly enters a dentist to let his molars be pulled even though the dentist warns him that it is dangerous to pull both at the same time due to the blood loss it causes. After this he enters a taxi, but cannot decide whether he has to go to his office, the police station, the hospital or home. The taxi driver complains that he one’s again has picked up an “aimless bullet”.

After hearing this, Ch’ŏrho thinks to himself: “I’ve too many roles to fulfill. As a son, a husband, father, older brother, a clerk in an accountant’s office. It’s all too much. Yes, maybe you’re right—a stray bullet, let loose by the creator. It’s true, I don’t know where I’m headed. But I know I must go, now, somewhere.”

Yi Bomson

Yi Bŏmsŏn (1920-1981)

The story poignantly depicts the hopeless social situation directly after the Korean War of many Koreans. Soldiers returning from the army found themselves without jobs, and even if a job could be found, it was hard to make ends meet. Of all places, the “Liberation Village” in which the story is set was one of the dreariest places of all. The shanty village consisted of refugees returning from forced labor or prostitution after World War II, North Korean refugees before the Korean War and Korean War refugees. None of these people had much hope of getting up in society.

Yi’s story received the Tongin prize in 1961 and was also made into a movie in that same year. The movie that was made out of the story is on top of my favorite Korean movie list, probably mainly because of my interest in 1940s/1950s Korea and the impression it gives of the hopelessness that many people living in post-war (South) Korean society felt.
A translation of Yi’s short story (translated by Marshall Pihl) can be read here, while the complete movie can be seen here.

Aimless Bullet movie poster

The movie poster of Aimless Bullet

Kim Chi-ha’s narrative poem “The Five Bandits”


Whoever writes poetry, you should be daring, not finicky-fussy. Write straight like this.

My writing-brush had an untamed spirit, a rugged tip,

and for that crime I was dragged off to jail, butt-flogged,

but that was all a long time ago; now my joints and sinews itch,

my rash lips flip, wrists mutter and twitch,

coercing me to write again no matter what; I can’t stand it.

Oh my god! What the hell? I don’t care what happens to me.

Even if my butt gets flogged again, beaten till it catches fire,

I’m going to write one ever-so-strange story about some thieves.

This is how Kim Chi-ha’s (기지하 1941-) narrative poem The Five Bandits kicks off and never pauses in its humour and sharp criticism of the elite. It is well known what happened next after the poem got published in the May issue of Sasangkye in 1970: Kim was arrested and imprisoned along with the editors of Sasangkye magazine on charges of having violated the infamous anti-communist law. The magazine was forced to close down.

Five Bandits

Poet Kim Chi-ha and the editors of Sasangkye on trial

The poem is interlaced with many cultural and social references. The title itself, for example, refers to the “Five Eulsa Traitors“(을사오적) who signed the 1905 treaty with Japan turning Korea into a colony. By making use of narrative strategies that are commonly used by shamans in their songs (with its many onomatopoeia) the poem becomes a rip-roaring read. For (English) translators it is really hard to convey all the references and sounds and keep the original speedy reading and meaning intact.
Happily there are some translators who have dared to take on such a difficult task to make this poem more widely known. One translation can be found in the excellent Sources of Korean Tradition (vol.2), but I recently also found a translation done by Brother Anthony on his website on Korean Literature. (the poem can be found here)

Five Bandits cover

Cover of a poetry collection including The Five Bandits

Hwang Sun-wŏn’s short story “Shower”


By far the most famous short story in Korean literature is Shower (소나기 Sonagi, 1952) written by Hwang Sun-wŏn (1915-2000).
For many Koreans it is the most representative story for portraying the sensibilities that are unique to Korean culture.
All schoolchildren are raised with this story since it has been part of the required curriculum for a long time.
It is a story of two young people on the verge of falling in love. (the story can be read here)

The story begins as the protagonist boy spies on the great-granddaughter of Mr. Yoon, who is sitting on a stepping stone in a stream playing with the water.
She is scooping up a handful of water to try to grasp her face reflected in the water. Suddenly she picks up a pebble, turns around and throws it to the boy shouting ” You fool!”.
The next day the boy returns to the stream but the girl is not there. From that day on he develops the habit of rubbing the pebble that was thrown at him.
One day it is the boy who is sitting on the stepping stone trying to catch his own reflection in the water. As he is doing so, he sees the reflection of the girl in the water.
Embarrassed, he runs away, but trips over a stepping stone.

On a saturday the boy and the girl meet again and she shows him a “silk clam”. From now on they become good friends, running around the countryside playing with scarecrows in the field and a calf. After being reprimanded by the owner of the calf they suddenly find themselves in a severe shower. They seek shelter in an old lookout, but since the rain keeps pooring in, they take shelter in a haystack. After the rain stops the boy carries her on his back, in order to cross a ditch.

After this day, the boy keeps coming to the stream, but the girl is not there. After a long time, the girl appears to tell him that she has been ill ever since she got a cold in the rain and that she is still not feeling any better. She also shows him the dress that she wore that day, which was stained by the water from the ditch.
She gives him some dates that she took from her family’s ancestoral worship ceremony that day and leaves. In return the boy sneaks into a walnut grove that same evening to give her some walnuts. As he returns and is lying on the bed, he overhears his father speaking to his mother that the Yoon family’s fortune has declined and that the girl has died. He also mentions that she must have been an extraordinary girl, because she said she wanted to be buried in the same clothes she was wearing that day.

Hwang Sun-won

Hwang Sun-won

This sweet but sad story about the budding love between the boy and the girl has become a popular topic for novelists and movie directors alike. That the story remains to be popular can be seen in the many cartoons and movies that have been made over the years. Also Hwang Sun-wŏn rightfully got his own museum (황순원문학촌) recently which is called the Sonagi Village and is located in Yangp’yŏng. Established in 2009, the museum organizes all sorts of events to keep promoting Hwang Sun-wŏn’s legacy with a Festival in his name and even a Hang Sun-wŏn Sonagi Marathon. (A small item about the museum can be viewed here. Beware! Don’t fall asleep because of the narrators entertaining voice while watching!)

One of the funnier references to Shower is undoubtably the short parody that was inserted in the movie My Sassy Girl (2001). The girl being a bit ‘weird’ is dreaming of becoming a scriptwriter and therefore let’s her boyfriend read her scripts to comment on them. Not happy with the ending of her movie, he explains to her that the ending should be more romantic. He is using Hwang Sun-won’s Shower as the example that set the norm for these type of endings, to which she replies that actually Hwang Sun-won’s ending should have been different. How different? Judge for yourself.

The Face of the Enemy during the Korean War


On the occassion of the publication of my very first academic article (yes, some blatant self-promotion on my part here), I would like to focus this week on the way South Korean writers depicted the enemy during the Korean War.
It goes without saying that nationalism and the moral highground on who represented the Korean nation formed one of the important battlefields during the civil war, especially for writers.

As war broke out on the 25th of June 1950, most writers already had a clear idea of what their role in war should be like. They saw wars in the modern period as ‘total wars’, meaning wars between nations, thereby blurring the distinction between soldier and civilian. Propaganda was regarded as being on an equal footing as the actual fighting, and the writer had a unique role to play in this. As was aptly put by children literature author Ch’oe Sangdŏk (1901-1971):

The pen which we carry to fight should, like grenades, field artillery, flame throwers and the atomic bomb, […] become a new weapon.
By taking up our pens we can withstand the enemy and span the divide between the front and the rear by increasing the morale of front-line soldiers and increasing the fighting spirit of the civilians at the rear.


Cover of the first edition of the war poem collection Together with the Foot Soldiers by Yu Ch’ihwan (1951) showing the writer as a soldier with a pen as its weapon

The North Korean Enemy
Literature written during the Korean War therefore needed to have the specific function of keeping morale high of both soldiers and civilians. Evoking hatred towards the enemy is a very common method to create such an effect on readers, and many writers used this strategy in their stories. That their definition of “total war between nations” had to be amended in their stories when it was put to practice in a civil war situation, can be seen in their method of depicting the North Korean enemy.

In many stories a distinction is made between the North Korean politician or army officer and the common North Korean citizen. Kim Song’s Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952) and Ch’oe Sangdŏk’s The Cow that Crossed the 38th Parallel (소가 넘은 38선, 1952) are only two examples where this can be seen. In the stories the writers make clear that the North Korean politicians and army officers have given up all rights to be part of the Korean nation by adhering to their “mistaken” (communist) ideology. Meanwhile the common North Korean citizen is a victim of this group in power and are treated as slaves.

In Kim Song’s novel, for example, this distinction is made clear by the character of Chu Mongil, who is an officer in the North Korean army. Among his evil deeds he rapes the hero’s fiancée and tries hard to establish a fifth column within South Korean territory. When the hero (named Hyŏngch’il) meets a captured North Korean soldier, however, he realizes what hardship the common North Korean people must endure.

It looks like the enemy’s military police tied his feet, so
that he couldn’t retreat at all, and was forced to fight
to the death. But in the face of our marines’ relentless
attack, the enemy’s defensive lines broke down completely
and their military police shot him, so that he
couldn’t flee.
“I wanted to run away and surrender, but because of the
military police’s supervision I ended up like this,” said
the boy, who dropped down on the ground and started
to cry loudly. Even though he was an enemy, from a
human perspective Hyŏngch’il felt pity for him.

The North Korean officers and politicians appearing in Kim Song’s story are generally depicted as cruel, murderous and inhuman, and are frequently associated with creatures that have negative connotations, such as devils, wolves and vermin. For the reader it is immediately clear which character in the story is evil, and who is good. That evilness is even biologically inscribed into a person’s appearance helps a lot in this regard. Chu Mongil, therefore, is described as having the “face of a savage, while his voice is like the howl of a bloodsucking vampire from hell”. throughout the novel, North Koreans are systematically shown in a bad light and denied any human characteristics. What I find interesting is that even in contemporary South Korean movies one can easily find these “evil” features in the way North Korean army officers are depicted, for example in Into the Fire (포화속으로, 2009) and the very recent The Front Line (고지전, 2011).

Into the Fire

The scarred face of Ch´a Seungwon in Into the Fire (who in reality is regarded as very handsome)

However, even in the course of one novel it is not easy to keep the distinction of an easily recognizable enemy intact. As “shadows” come to the house to take Hyŏngch’il’s fiancée’s father away, they are easily recognizable as common North Korean soldiers. This, in combination with the general trend during the Korean War in other South Korean stories to depict all North Koreans as evil, make it difficult for the reader to maintain a sympathethic stance towards the common North Korean citizen/soldier.

Front Line

Another example of evilness being easily recognizable in The Front Line

Some instances in which the wartime (propaganda) stories unintentionally read like humor stories can be found in Yu Chuhyŏn’s Woman’s Song (여인의 노래, 1952) and Pak Yŏnhŭi’s Weapons and Humanity (무기와 인간, 1953) and the way they depict the Chinese enemy soldiers. In both stories the Chinese are depicted as evil by their physical shortcomings, and their animalistic acts. As true animals their normal behaviour is to kill and rape women. What makes their stories funny, is the fact that the Chinese soldier’s sexual lust wins out over their survival skills, when in both stories the Chinese soldiers die when they are trying to rape a (needless to say,  Korean) woman, while bombs are flying around and a major assault is launched on their hillside.
After the Korean War, the animalistic sexual lust of the enemy seems to have remained a popular theme in anti-communist literature as can be seen by the cover of a comic book entitled Kim Il Sung’s Secret Bedroom (김일성의 침실).

Kim Il Sung

Cover of the anti-communist comic book Kim Il Sung's Secret Bedroom showing a lustful Kim Il Sung

The tragic deaths of Chŏn Bongnae and Chŏng Unsam


It goes without saying that the Korean War period was a severe and tragic time for Koreans, and writers and poets were not spared. For two young poets the wartime hardships they experienced proved to be too much, and both decided to commit suicide.

Chŏn Bongnae (born March 3, 1923 – died February 16, 1951)  was an up and coming poet who made his debut in 1950 through the Literary Arts (文藝) magazine. During the liberation period he had moved to the south together with his brother and spent most of his time in several cafe’s enjoying Bach’s music or reading the poetry of Paul Valéry.
When war broke out he and his brother were unable to flee Seoul and spent three months in hiding during the occupation by the North Korean army. After Seoul was recaptured his brother was drafted into the army, while Chŏn Bongnae moved to Pusan.
Without food and a home, he soon saw no other way but to take his own life even though he had a desire to keep on living as he attested in his suicide note. After drinking poison while seated in cafe Star, he wrote the following last words:

 I just drank phenobarbital. That was 30 seconds ago. Nothing happens.
2 minutes, 3 minutes have passed. Still nothing.
10 minutes have passed. My eyelids are feeling heavy.
I did not want to leave this world and this brilliant century. But in order to live correctly and honestly
I will go to my death with a smile.
Bach’s music is flowing around.

To the people I miss,

February 16th.

Haedong Kongnon
Cover of the 1949 magazine Haedong Kongnon (Korean Debates) containing Chŏng Unsam’s poem ‘In a Moonlit Night’

 Chŏng Unsam (born 1925 – died January 8, 1953) had published his first few romantic poems in Whiteclothed People (白民) magazine in 1949 and also was a promising new poet on the literary scene. During the war he had fled to Pusan, where he obtained a job as a teacher at Sukmyŏng Girls High School.
The day he commited suicide did not seem any different from his other regular visits to Cafe Mildawŏn. However next to his pent up frustrations due to the war, he had just experienced a painful heartbreak. This led him to his decision. In his suicide note he wrote:

After a long time it has really become clear to me.
Now, in the rolling waves of the sea, I can see the face of my lover sending me a smile.
Now I see before me that almost all of my beloved friends have gathered.
I don’t want to lengthen my life any longer in this time and place where they have taken care of me.
Be well. People I miss.

January 8, 1953   Chŏng Unsam

The deaths of these two promising young poets created a big shock among writers, and some of them wrote about this in their works. For example Kim Song inserted a reference to Chŏn Bongnae’s suicide in his novel Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952), when the main female protagonist of the story contemplates suicide and writes in her diary that she was thinking of committing suicide by drinking phenobarbital while listening to Bach’s music.
Kim Dongni wrote about the hardships that the writers had to endure in his famous 1955 novel The Period in Mildawŏn (밀다원 시대), and gives a glimpse of the reasons why these young poets came to their decision to end their lives so soon.

Kim Chin-myŏng’s alternative historical novel “The Mugunghwa blossoms” (1993)


Some months ago I was reading Kim Chinmyŏng’s bestseller The Mugunghwa blossoms(무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다, 1993). When this alternative historical novel came out it quickly sold around 4 million copies. And indeed, for Koreans the story must be an entertaining read.

Mugunghwa book cover

The book cover of The Mugunghwa Blossoms

Journalist Kwŏn Sunbŏm is asked by a prosecutor friend to investigate the mysterious death of a famous nuclear scientist called Yi Yonghu. In 1978 this scientist got into a car accident, while he was working together with president Park Chunghee on forming a nuclear program. By investigating this matter, Sunbŏm uncovers a plot and starts to believe that Yi Yonghu’s death was not a mere accident.

As he gets closer to the truth his friends and he himself start being hunted by a secret and powerful organization. He manages to uncover many important aspects of Yi Yonghu’s life and work, and when he even finds out that he had secretly imported a good amount of uranium into the country, he informs the president of his results. This leads to the South Korean government seeking help from North Koreain assembling a nuclear weapon and even brings about Korea’s unification.

Meanwhile Japan is trying hard to keep Korea from unifying, since they feel threatened by the vast economic power Korea might then become. In the end Japan sees no other way but to destroy Korea’s economic facilities and start a war.

How the story ends is for an interested reader to discover. Or, if plowing through 900 pages is not your thing, you could maybe get a hold of the movie that came out in 1995. Unlike the book, however, the movie was a big failure, even with the then record budget of 4 billion wŏn that was spent on it.

Mugunghwa movie poster

The movie poster of the 1995 film The Mugunghwa Blossoms

The story itself was based on the life of scientist Yi Hwiso who indeed died because of a car accident in 1977. A huge debate arose between the writer and family members of Yi Hwiso on the way his life was depicted in the book. In the novel Yi was working together with Park Chunghee on establishing a Korean nuclear program, however in reality Yi was very critical of Park’s dictatorship rule. This argument heated up as years went by and even lead to a libel case against Kim Chinmyŏng. A KBS documentary from 2010 deals with these differing views and tried to establish the real facts around Yi Hwiso’s life. It also contains an interview with the writer.

What I found interesting when reading the book was the way in which women were depicted (or should I say used?). Mostly they are seen as victims of male power and in need of protection. This is especially obvious in the way the ‘evilness’ of the Japanese is described in their attempts to kidnap Korean women to force them into prostitution.
I find this interesting for the reason that in my research on literature written during the Korean War this same strategy is used by writers: Women are mostly victims of a larger (political) reality in which they have no choice of their own.

Also the way North Korea is depicted is noteworthy: Kim Il Sung agrees wholeheartedly with the South Koreans’ viewpoints, always sees their virtues, and is very willing to work together towards a “shared” (South) Korean goal. The character of Kim Il Sung is not developed at all, and when he does get to speak in the story, it is mostly short sentences in agreement with the South’s wishes.

These points were for me interesting discoveries, but the story itself did not really strike a nerve.