The Dawn of Ecological Consciousness in Korean Literature

Korea’s industrialization kicked off in the early 1960s, pursuing the accumulation of capital based on a government-led monopolistic system that resulted in the magnification of harmful factors. In particular, the policy of setting up industrial complexes and concentrating industries regionally without any consideration for primary industries like agriculture, forestry, and fishing gave rise to serious environmental problems. In response, Korean writers began reflecting on the Park Chung-hee administration’s dehumanizing and destructive development-first economic policy through their novels that dealt with environmental issues.

     Hong Sung-won’s novella Despot (1969) explores our awareness about the natural ecosystem through the symbol of a tiger, using allegory to criticize the military dictatorship that wielded absolute authority, while at the same time revealing an ecological consciousness. In “The Sun Sets in the Western Hills” (1972), published as part of his serialized novel Gwanchon Essays, Lee Mun Ku realistically portrays the environmental and ecological destruction in farming communities brought about by industrial modernization through the fate of a giant pine tree that withers away because of air pollution. Through the perspective of a police officer dispatched to a guard post at an industrial complex where he witnesses the sea being choked by discharged wastewater, Kim Yong Seong’s Above the Dead Sea (1976) shows that life cannot survive in a polluted ecosystem.

     The trend of novels dealing with environmental issues that first appeared toward the end of the 1960s became even more pronounced by the second half of the 1970s, with the appearance of works by Cho Se- Hui, Kim Won il, and Han Seung-won. In The Dwarf (1978), Cho locates the root cause of environmental problems in the economic structure of capitalism and systematic social inequality. The monopolistic enterprises at the Eungang Industrial Complex cut back on expenses by releasing untreated pollutants directly into the river and the air. The ones who have to bear the damage resulting from the actions of the factory management are the “dwarfs.”

     Cho dissects the structure of Korean society in the 1970s through the conflict between the ruling class and the underprivileged class, whom he symbolizes as the dwarfs, in order to show that environmental pollution and ecological destruction are closely connected with inequality. In doing so, Cho’s The Dwarf touches upon the realistic problems of Korea in the 1970s such as labor conflict and the rich-poor divide. Using fantastical techniques like allegory, symbolism, genre mixing, and overlapping scenes, on portrays the conflict and strife between the haves and the have-nots as though part of a fairy tale or an illogical world. At the same time, he also reveals the underlying reality of it all by subverting and liberating the Other. The only possibility the dwarfs have of overcoming their deplorable conditions is through fantasy. Only the death and resurrection of Yŏng-su, a dwarf’s son, and the fantasy represented by his brother Yŏsng-ho’s dream can restore the dwarfs’ dying lands and rivers into a world of glowing fireflies and blooming pansies. The apparition of a wrecking ball that cuts across the sky in a straight line above YŏEng-hŭ-i’s head alludes to the dwarfs’ tragic dream. The fantast...