Korean Society and Novels Since 1987

Freed from the constraints of history, the new generation of Korean writers is foraging a new path in a direction dramatically different from their predecessors.

 

The June revolution of 1987 marked the end of long military rule in Korea. Korea began to strive towards democracy and diversify culturally. Socialism had failed and the dominance of capitalism around the globe became undeniable. Under such circumstances, literature paradoxically attacked philosophies that saw literature as a vehicle of social change. Literature began to lose its focus after decades of raging against an autocratic government. As the idea of a market economy expanded to include culture and information products, lifestyles also underwent changes. These changes turned the Korean cultural market into a self-regulating entity that pioneered its own market. In this process, literature was subsumed into the cultural market.

A literature of political imagination, which dominated the previous era, was relatively weakened, diminishing literature’s political and educational responsibility that had been the hallmark of Korean contemporary literature. In a world where there was nothing left to expose or be enraged about, literature had to re-examine its place in the world. The realm of a personal life thus far veiled behind group ideology emerged in the unfamiliar environment of an information-based society and routines of capitalism. New themes of personal worlds and the problems of living a cultural life emerged in the 1990s. Colorful themes such as a re-examination of the inner world, feminism and sexuality, exploring life in the city, relationships to popular culture, the digital environment, and cyberspace appeared for the first time. This signifies more than just an expansion of themes and topics but a diversification of literary awareness. A revolt broke out against literature’s responsibility to be an objective depiction of reality.

Raised with more exposure to mass media than the previous generation, authors who appeared after the 1990s brought in new perspectives. Shin Kyung-sook, Youn Dae-Nyeong, and Song Sokze received critical attention in the mid-90s; and then came writers with an even clearer generational distinction, Baek Min-seok, Bae Suah, Kim Young-ha, Park Seong-won, Kim Yeonsu, and Kim Kyung-uk. Shin Kyung-sook’s The Blind Calf (1993) for example, and Youn Dae-Nyeong’s Argot Fishing Dispatch (1995) fleshed out the oppressed aesthetic of introversion in Korean literature. Along those lines, Bae Suah’s Backroads with Green Apples (1995) and Baek Min-seok’s Hey, We Are Going on a Picnic (1995) presented new possibilities, and Song Sokze’s The Last 4½ Seconds of My Life (1996) and Kim Young-ha’s Pager (1997) opened up a more clearly defined, new aesthetic space. Kim Yeonsu and Kim Kyung-uk are good examples of writers that connect literature from the 1990s to the 2000s. K...