The Body in Contemporary Korean Literature: Overview

For a long time Korean literature has both recreated the violence of the body within the regulation of the symbolic order and dreamed of a different kind of body, one which can go beyond the regulation of bodies.


The Vegetarian is receiving worldwide interest with its peculiar story about a woman dreaming of becoming a tree, however this kind of imagination about the human body is not something that the writer Han Kang has created alone. Rather, it is something made by Korean literature in its entirety. The Vegetarian is the outcome of a unique take on a theme repeated throughout the long history of Korean literature. For a long time Korean literature has both recreated the violence of the body within the regulation of the symbolic order and dreamed of a different kind of body, one which can go beyond the regulation of bodies. Interest in the human body, therefore, is one of the various genealogies that can be traced back within Korean literature. It is fascinating to examine the path of imagination in Korean literature with regards to the human body. Such an endeavor provides an opportunity both to locate the outstanding tree that is The Vegetarian within the forest of Korean literature, and to take in a panoramic view of this diverse and expansive forest.



The current symbolic order does not allow for an individual to have their own individual body or for the individuality of each body. Without having to quote Michel Foucault, it should suffice to say that in contemporary society bodies that do not fit the norm are constantly being repressed and rejected. It has already been a long time, then, since the fall of the human body in the symbolic order to that of a docile body. Korean literature has reflected an interest in the docile body for many decades, but it is the examination of control over the body, or controlled bodies, expressed from the mid-1990s onward that particularly merits attention.

     Over the years there have been two main trends in consideration of the human body in Korean literature. One of these is to reproduce the process of the human subject being reduced to a docile body, and examine the way in which these docile bodies exist. For example the poet Shin Kyeong-nim, who was extremely vocal in the struggle for political democracy and unification in Korea that took place from the 1970s onwards, in a recent poem titled “Snow,” compares the body to a “dark and stifling prison.” Choi Seung-ja, who has a strong sense of historical philosophy in which, beneath the weight of the patriarchal order, women have been living as bodies even more systematically regulated—expressed both a strong will to escape from the controlled body and the process by which this is denied in “For the Second Time in Thirty-Three Years.” Through the frustrated attempt at escape described in this poem Choi hints at how solid the wall of the symbolic order is which constrains and confines women.

     Hwang Jungeun, who depicts the current sadist symbolic order with a masochistic cheerfulness, describes in detail in the short story “The Seven Thirty-Two Elephant Train” the physical and linguistic violence committed against an individual in order to restrain a person as a docile body. In “The Third Breast,” Cheon Un-yeong, who often writes about characters that reject the body as emphasized by the symbolic order and instead seek after an individualized beauty of the body, focuses on the cruelty of docile bodies. For the narrator in this short story the greatest happiness of his life is being with a woman who has a unique body, but the moment she tries to leave him he turns on her, committing a brutal murder. In this story we encounter the terrifying nature of the being groomed as a docile body and the way in which it can transform in the blink of an eye, to enact great cruelty when faced with an other who stands outside of the symbolic order. In a similar vein, in Diary of a Murderer, Kim Young-ha, who created a “suicide guide” character in the novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and expressed the depression and strong sense of futility of modern people, this time focuses on a serial killer who has lost his memory. Every time he feels embarrassment towards someone stronger than himself, he coerces this other to the extent that they can no longer put up any resistance, and with this behavior he becomes a habitual murderer. The act of killing becoming the means through which he finds his sole meaning for existence. Diary of a Murderer, through the method of memorization of a serial killer, which brings the logic of capitalism to its extreme, demonstrates in a shocking way just how much of a b...