70 Years of Independence and Division: The Flow of Korean Literature Through the Eras

Editor's Note

This issue’s Special Section commemorates seventy years of independence and division on the Korean peninsula. We have sorted post-independence Korean literature into the following categories: Postwar and Division Literature; Literature from Industrialization and Democratization to the 1980s; and Post-industrial Literature after the 1990s.

Division, Industrialization, and Democratization

 

In modern Korean history, 1945 marks liberation from Japanese occupation and division of the country into North and South, thus beginning the “era of division” which casts a shadow over the lives of Koreans to this day. In other words, liberation and division came at the same time, and both were carried out by outside forces. The tragic circumstances of the latter are still ongoing and thus there is no refuting the fact that all Korean literature from 1945 onwards can be called “division era literature.”

     Of course, such circumstances, while external to literature, have a major impact within the literary world, and while this year marks a full seven decades since division, in one way or another Korean literature is still burdened with the weight of the wounds inflicted by partition. There are many examples of poets and novelists who, within this difficult historical and social environment, have taken these conditions as subject matter and created incredible works of literature; and indeed this phenomena can be found not only in the literature of Korea but in writing originating from a great many countries. An old Eastern expression conveys this in “the misfortunes of the nation enrich the poet’s art.”

     While this expression merely implies respect for the artistic achievement of such literature, the lives of the people from which these works derive cannot have been happy. This becomes even clearer if we consider the following terms used to refer to each stage of Korean literature from 1945 onwards. Literature from the period beginning with liberation to the start of the Korean War in 1950 is “space of liberation literature,” literature from 1950 to the armistice of 1953 is “wartime literature,” and writing from the armistice to the end of the 1950s is “post-war literature.” The ideological opposition between South and North that began during the “space of liberation literature” remained consistent throughout the war and post-war periods.

     To be sure, in post-war literature there are many works that were engrossed in the need to depict the immediate task of their characters as one of survival, and to portray the defeat and defiance of the masses in the context of the social reality of confusion and devastation. However, it cannot be denied that such descriptions and depictions of the cruel realities of the day mirrored those that recounted the turbulent times of the division era. On top of this, the severing of north and south along the border meant that citizens could no longer go back and forth, creating a new realm of literature by writers who had fled the North and settled in the South.

     As a leading writer of division literature, Hwang Sun-Won depicted his own experiences with North Korean society and post-war South Korea in his novel The Descendants of Cain. In addition, his Trees on a Slope presents the lives of young people trying to deal with the war and cope in the destruction of its aftermath. Writers who presented the immense suffering of the late 1950s in particularly sharp detail include Son Chang-sop and Chang Yong-hak, while writers such as Choi In-hun and Lee Ho-cheol presented the same subject matter anew in the context of the relationship between North and South. At the same time, among the female writers who described such circumstances with a heightened sensitivity, Choe Chung-Hui and Pak Kyongni have come to be seen as the leading lights of the era.

     Beginning in the 1960s the flow of literature became much more complex as conditions in Korean society gradually began to stabilize. From this time to the present day, ways of referring to Korean literature continue to emerge such as “divided literature,” “literature of separation,” “industrialization era literature,” and “literature longing for a unified age.” In particular, the creative and thematic angles taken in Korean literary works from 1960 onwards have at their core issues relating to division and industrialization.

     As the generation that lived through the war as children grew up and began writing, many of their works revived memories of their desolate childhoods, and, as mentioned above, though these writers lived difficult lives, their creative endeavors were endowed with the weight and intricacy of lived experience. The poets and novelists who took on these themes and who thrived in the 1970s can still be considered to make up the mainstream of Korean literature to this day. The novels of Kim Won-il, Jeon Sang-guk, Han Sung-won, and Yi Mun-yol are examples of this.

     However, Korean society ushered in a new era following the influence of the 4.19 Revolution in 1960 when students became the driving force in the fight against the despotic rule and ballot-rigging of the Rhee Syngman regime, and the May 16th military coup d’état that followed quick on the revolution’s heels (as well as the era of economic development and industrialization these events gave rise to). Of course, literature followed suit, and works were produced which displayed a diverse social consciousness. Works dealing with popular resistance and the longing for political democracy as well as workers’ awakening to the irrationality of industrialization began to float to the surface and occupy an important position in the literary scene.

     Out of the parched and desolate literature of the early 1960s a new literary world opened up with writers like Kim Seungok and his short story “Journey to Mujin,” which tried to rediscover a lyrical sensibility, and Yi Chong-Jun’s “The Wounded” which replaced the interrelation between the self and reality with a single pathological phenomenon. Works that addressed the social issues of the time in a more direct way include Hwang Sok-yong’s “Strange Land,” Yun Heunggil’s “The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes,” and Cho Se-Hui’s “The Dwarf.”

In addition, works that displayed a critical stance towards the devastation of rural villages include Song Kisook’s Elegy for Jaratgol and Lee Mun Ku’s Gwanchon Essays. It is also important to note the literary works that focused on the pathological sensation of the city that arose as an unavoidable side effect of intensified industrialization. The writings of Choi Ilnam, Park Wansuh, and Choi Inho are representative examples of this. The aftermath of economic development, which reached into every corner of the countryside and cities, can be found in contemporary literature as well, represented in even more in-depth and multifaceted ways.

Up to this point, most explanation has focused on novels, as stories are more straightforward when it comes to identifying the interrelation between social and literary history through narrative. In truth, this is not a proper standpoint from which to discuss literature. In...