From the Maelstrom of the Korean War

“Postwar literature” is both a concept and a category used in literary histories of modern Korean literature. Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the term became prominent and now is commonly used to refer to literature written in the period between the armistice of July 27th, 1953 and the 4.19 Revolution of 1960. However, the concept of postwar literature occupies a very unclear position in contemporary Korean discourse. Many writers, including Son Chang-sop, Chang Yong-hak, and Pak Kyongni, are labeled as postwar writers, but in fact when works by such writers are mentioned, those written up to the mid-1960s are often referred to as postwar fiction. Therefore, before discussing postwar literature it is necessary to clear up this temporal uncertainty.
     First and foremost, we must consider that while the war began on June 25th, 1950 and raged on until the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, the hostilities and the tensions of the system that followed are yet to be resolved. Korea remains a divided country owing to the perpetuity of the system that became established following the war. Postwar literature can be seen as the literary superstructure spanning this long and ongoing era. Therefore I propose to name the literature of the period up to the mid-60s that I will discuss as “first-phase postwar literature.”

     Yet there is one more important provision to keep in mind before discussing Korean postwar literature: it is the fact that, in Korea, “postwar” has a dual and overlapping nature. Korea gained independence from Japan on August 15th, 1945. The independence of Korea was a direct outcome of World War II, meaning that the historical events following liberation were already set in motion through the postwar structures put in place after the Second World War. Hence, “postwar,” which refers to literature after the Korean War, overlaps with a previous “postwar” concept originating with the Second World War. It can be said that these two postwar periods coexist even today.
     On the other hand, another element to consider when discussing the postwar literature of Korea is the literature of those who journeyed south as refugees. This “northern refugee literature” group refers to the works written by writers who fled southwards in the period between liberation and the fortification of the border along the 38th parallel. I suggest that a better way to refer to these writers is as “writers who lost their hometowns.” With such a concept, we can group together writers with different psychological and ideological characteristics in order to distinguish them from those who had their familial roots in the South.

     In the eight years between liberation in 1945 and the end of the Korean War in 1953, young writers who had grown up in the South secured hegemony in the Korean literary scene. The writer Kim Tong-ni, critic Jo Yeon-hyeon, and poet Seo Jeongju—as well as the poets of the Cheongnokpa group such as Jo Ji-hun, Pak Mog-Weol, and Pak Tu-Jin—were seen as the leading lights of Korean literature. When the Korean peninsula was divided following liberation and many literary figures were espousing socialist ideology, these writers adhered to their belief in the inherent value of literature, especially in the face of totalitarianism. This became the rallying point for their justification of the importance and value of literature for literature’s sake.
     In contrast to this group, poets, writers, and critics who had come down from the North had to continue onwards in a state of unsettled uncertainty regarding their everyday lives and their place in the literary community. Although they came south to escape the political system forming in the North, they could not help but be eng...