From Politics to Ethics: Jung Yi Hyun, Kim Ae-ran, Jeon Sungtae, and Kim Yeonsu

The new generation of writers tackles the most pressing concerns of their time, pursuing uncomfortable, but necessary questions.


The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s had a great influence on Korean literature, contributing to a decline of the political. Partly because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of Marxism, a great part of the progressive energy that governed Korean literature in the 80s split into sub-themes such as the inner world, everyday life, femininity, and culture. The economic crisis of 1997 marked another watershed, a point many critics tacitly agree on. After the economic crisis, Korean society was drawn into the demands of globalization and a free-for-all market economy that gave into the demands of global financial trends. This period marks the beginning of a new millennium literature in Korea.

One notable change is the unspoken agreement among writers on the impossibility of politics. Politics in the traditional sense is actually built on the premise of the resistance of the individual. But when the whole of society is drawn under the influence of consumer capitalism and even the individuals’ subconscious is structured like a product, resistance is impossible. The new writers of the 2000s are relatively free from the political imagination of literature in the 80s. The issues raised in the literary criticism of the 21st century such as the “trivialization of the individual,” “writing in a vacuum,” and “increase of obsessive narratives” are indicators of such a trend. Before the gargantuan capitalist system, writers are no longer able to find a foothold for heroic resistance, or have given up the search altogether.

Jung Yi Hyun is one writer who has depicted this reality through the most honest, cynical lens. Jung’s works appeared like a comet on the literary scene in 2002 as an exception to the Korean literary tradition that largely focused on portraying marginalized groups. The backdrop of Jung’s novels is Gangnam, Seoul, which attracts the wealthiest people in Korea and is consequently the frontier of consumer capitalist culture. It is realistically impossible to even dream of resistance in such a space. Jung chooses to handle this reality through a “politics of masquerade” in the Baudrillardian sense. Jung’s characters happen to be young women with office jobs who are blatantly well-adjusted to the system. They are vicious and not ashamed of their desires to climb the socioeconomic ladder. In “Romantic Love and Society,” marriage is a means of moving up to higher social classes. In “Trunk,” fashion and cars are status symbols. The women are so conniving and sly that they are subject to ridicule in the end, which is Jung’s point. By portraying individuals who have become perfect embodiments of consumer capitalism, Jung reveals the phoniness of these individuals and the situation that surrounds them. Jung thus explores ways for literature to remain political in an age where politics to have lost its relevance.

Romantic Love & Society
Jung Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 251p, ISBN 9788932014487

Kim Ae-ran is also a writer with a sensitive reaction to the overwhelming dominance of consumer capitalism. For example, her debut story, “Don’t Knock Before You Enter,” or one of her early works, “I Go to the Convenience Store,” have as main characters, unemployed young men and women, a staple in Korea after the financial crisis of 1997, thus capturing the dark cross sections society. Kim’s style, however, differs markedly from Jung’s in that Kim’s characteristic humor sets a completely different tone. The characters we see in her two story collections, Run, Pop, Run! and Mouthwatering, are comic characters who do not despair or pity themselves in spite of the horrid situations they find themselves in. Critic Kim Dongshik describes the likes of Kim’s stories as “family romance without resentment.” Tears and anger, indeed, do not play a great part in Kim’s novels as she regulates them with humor. It is unlikely that Kim’s characters, most of them raised in broken homes, lurking in the margins of consumer society without jobs or friends, know no tears or anger. Nevertheless, Kim bestows them with the power to control their tears and rage. The best example of this is the child abandoned by her father at the amusement park in “Salut d’Amour.” The child goes to the information desk and instead of saying, “I was abandoned,” she says, “My father’s lost.” The change from “I was abandoned” to “my father’s lost” generates humor, which turns sorrow into laughter. But the laughter is laden with meaning because we know that the situation, however funny, is no laughing matter. This makes Kim’s stories of the most miserable, young, and helpless characters appear warm and full of life. Kim Ae-ran, along with Yoon Sung-hee and Park Min-gyu, is one of the few writers who has learned to keep her sense of humor amidst a nightmarish reality.

1. Run, Pop, Run!
Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 268p, ISBN 9788936436902
2. A Pool of Saliva
Kim Ae-ran, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.

Another notable trend in Korean literature in the 2000s is the emergence of the theme, “ethics of the other,” also related to the decline of the political after the 1990s. The gradual diversification of Korean society after the Kim Young-sam administration pushed for an open labor market policy in 1992, which became increasingly visible through th...