The Postmodern City and Its Discontents

As a result of Korea’s dizzying urbanization and modernization that have few precedents, Korea developed two radically different faces. One is an efficient and radiant modernity; the other, a heartless, dangerous modernity. In the 21st century, what shape will the city take for Korea’s next generation of writers?


Every city has two faces: that of an angel and that of a devil. These double aspects of a city result from the fact that the city is a child of modernity: simultaneously an angel and a devil. As Cho Myung-Rae clearly demonstrates in his book The Modern Society and City-theory and Reality (2002), the “city is not only a mold with which modernity is formed, but also an obvious medium that can represent modernity.” In short, the two faces of a city are those of modernity. Since urbanization and modernization in Korea have been achieved so rapidly, the mark of these two faces was carved very sharply in history. Koreans have experienced modernities of both efficiency and cruelty. What the authors have kept their eyes on was, of course, the latter. The efforts to overthrow the dangerous modernity of cruelty have advanced through the 70s and 80s and ignited the fire of revolution.

During the 1980s, which can be recalled as a time of revolution, Korea had achieved democratization but failed to further the revolution. Korean literature had to accept the new frame of the so-called confusion of postmodernism. In When Adam Becomes Awake by Jang Jeong-il (once considered enfant terrible of the day), the main character Adam wakes up in a fake paradise named Seoul and sheds tears while watching the neon-lit cross of a church. In this novel, the passion and prospect, apparently the signs of the modern project of liberation, can hardly be found. This work is an apocalypse of postmodern consumer society.


1 The Library of Musical Instruments Kim Junghyuk, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2008, 312p ISBN 978-89-546*0567-0 03810
2 Heading for a Breeding Farm Pyun Hye-Young, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2007, 255p ISBN 978-89-546-0359-1 03810
3 Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? Kim Kyung-uk, Moonji Publishing 2005, 304p, ISBN 978-89-320-1603-8
4 My Sweet Seoul Jeong Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing, 2008 442p, ISBN 978-89-320-1715-8 03810

As the literature of the 90s turns its interest from revolution to authenticity, this trend was accelerated. Cities were revived as spaces without authenticity, and Adam’s descendants started wandering around the unreal city in search of a real self. The novels of Yun Dae-nyeong described this world in a most refined way. Probably in those days, Seoul might have shifted from a modern city to a postmodern city. Then, how is the city represented by the authors of the 21st century? The following explores the literary background and thoughts of young authors in accordance with two different themes.

My Precarious City
The first theme is the sense of insecurity with which Korean city dwellers are held captive. It is well-known that Ulrich Beck once called modern society a “risk society” and tried to find an alternative from this “reflexive modernity.” After experiencing a number of disasters during the mid 1990s, Korea had to face the reality of being a high-risk society. In 1994, Seongsoo Bridge, a former symbol for the so-called miracle of the Han River, collapsed. In 1995, a gas pipe exploded in a Daegu subway construction site. Two months later, the Sampoong Department Store, regarded as a symbol of wealth in Seoul’s Gangnam district, collapsed.

Some sociologists described these chain of disasters as accidents that betray the contradiction and cracks of a city obsessed with development. These accidents left deep scars in the hidden recesses of city dwellers.

After having lived near the now-destroyed Sampoong Department Store through her mid 20s, Jeong Yi Hyun published a short story, “Sampoong Department Store,” on the 10th commemorative anniversary of its collapse. It cannot be known whether this short story was written for the purpose of critical reflection of a “risk society” or “developmentism,” since her trauma is not dealt with socially, but privately. However, that is why this short story allows candid and natural reflections, not unfamiliar criticism. Those reflections were probably possible because of Jeong’s sense of balance. In general, two aspects of the city are equally treated in her novels, but in any case, she never maintains a negative view towards life in the Gangnam district where she was born and spent her youth. She says: “I’m an urbanite by nature.” Or it can be said that though the metropolis of Seoul sometimes breeds solitude and sorrow, it is for her a “lovely place.”

“Cities were revived as spaces without authenticity, and Adam's descendants started wandering around the unreal city in search of a real self.”

Yet, Pyun Hye-Young, another young author of Jeong’s age, rarely shows us the lovely face of a city. Instead, Pyun reaches into the dark side of the city, which makes us feel gloomy, frightened, and disgusted when reading her novels. This obstinacy in dealing with the hidden side of the city draws attention from many critics. Whereas the city was presented as a grotesque space in her first collection, Aoi Garden (2005), it is created through a more realistic atmosphere and vivid description in her second collection, Heading for a Breeding Farm (2007). The title of Pyun’s second collection descr...