Reflections of Korea’s East and Central Asian Neighbors

Korea is linked with countries in East and Central Asia both historically and geographically, so it is no surprise that these regions play a prominent role in Korean literature.


Located in East Asia, Korea has constantly influenced and been influenced by other countries in the region. In fact, to say that these countries have exchanged influences is not enough to describe the complex relationship they have had. Korea’s relationship with the Ming and Qing dynasties of China was servile for a long time. In the 13th century, Korea was ruled by the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongols and was colonized by Japan in the 20th century. Koreans, who began moving to the Russian Maritime Territory from the end of the 19th century, were relocated to Central Asia by Stalin’s policy of forced migration. The works introduced in the following are recent Korean literary works that have been set in Japan, China, Mongolia, and Central Asia.


Lee Jangwook, “Tokyo Boy," King of Confession

Lee Jangwook began his writing career as a poet in 1994 and is currently active as a writer and a critic. “Tokyo Boy” is the first story in his collection of short stories, King of Confession. Members of a mystery book club travel to Japan to trace the steps of a mystery writer who lived in the Taisho period. Their journey ends without much success but their return flight gets delayed due to a sudden storm. They end up spending the night in a shabby hotel in a back alley of Tokyo. As they sit in the hotel lobby that is wet due to a downpour, one member suddenly murmurs: “Is my Yuki really dead?”

The club member begins to talk about a woman named Yuki who was born to a Japanese father and Korean mother. Yuki’s hometown was Yokohama. She moved around the world with her family, following her father’s job, and met the club member in Korea. After her parents met a tragic death, Yuki came to Japan with him to look for the memories of her childhood. Together they traveled to Kyoto and then to Nara, only to learn that her grandmother has passed away. He says that her existence slowly began to fade away after that, and then he finally confesses that he strangled her to death in room 102 of that very hotel. However, the club members and the hotel owner cannot find any traces of Yuki in the hotel and are at a loss for words at hearing such an absurd story.

It is not clear whether Watanabe Pou, the Japanese mystery writer who appears in this story, really did exist. It may also be that the woman named Yuki the man remembers exists only in his fantasy. We all fade away like a “cloud on a grey day” unless we are remembered by someone. Using mystery, “Tokyo Boy” explores how people’s desires are crippled today because they cannot care for other people despite wanting to be recognized by others. The setting of a hotel in the back alleys of Tokyo during heavy rains intensifies the dream-like atmosphere of the story.


Pyun Hye-Young, Ashes and Red

Pyun Hye-Young’s Ashes and Red begins with a quarantine officer grimacing after checking his temperature. The main character of the novel is famously skilled in catching rats and is dispatched to a country called C. An epidemic has spread across the country C and to make matters worse, people are living in fear of an impending earthquake. After arriving in C, the protagonist is suspected of killing his wife and has to go on the run. He falls from the fourth floor of an apartment building to the bottom of the underground sewage system, and eventually goes back to work as a professional quarantine officer.

This novel is based on a social atmosphere where a great fear of new types of contagious diseases like the avian flu, the swine flu, and mad cow disease has gripped the entire world. As more and more complicated and difficult medical terms are used to describe the situation, ordinary people, who lack accurate information and have to rely on the government and the media, become more anxious.

Though the country where the novel is set is simply called C, Pyun has already revealed in various interviews that this country is in fact Japan. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 and the subsequent explosion at the nuclear power plant resemble the world governed by fear as it appears in the novel. The way Japan has relied on nuclear power despite their terrible trauma caused by nuclear bombs shows, symbolically and tragically, how people today live their lives in daily fear and anxiety. Pyun named the country C, a universally anonymous name, to say that such fear and anxiety is not limited to any specific country but exists everywhere.


Kim Yeonsu, The Night Is Singing

Kim Yeonsu’s The Night Is Singing is based on the Minsaengdan Incident that took place in the Chinese region of Jiandao in the 1930s. A few Koreans who had been living in the Jiandao area formed a pro-Japanese political group called Minsaengdan. The group was small and after a short while, it dispersed. However, the Communist Party of China decided that Korean members within the party were linked to this group, and framed many members as spies, arresting and killing them. It is estimated that some 500 people were killed as a result of this incident. Most of the sacrificed had resisted Japanese imperialism in Korea, moved Jiandao, and turned to Communist ideology, which was in vogue at the time. What ended their lives was not Japanese imperialism but doubt and misunderstanding from their own comrades.

Kim Yeonsu narrates this historical incident through the interwoven lives of seven characters: four young men Bak Do-man, Choe Do-sik, An Se-hun, and Bak Gil-lyong; their friend a modern woman named Yi Jeong-hui; railway surveyor Kim Hae-yeon who was in love with Yi Jeong-hui; and Yeo-ok who worked at a photo studio in Longjing. Yi Jeong-hui was secretly collecting information on the Japanese army that had been stationed in Jiandao. When her activities are discovered, she takes her own life after leaving a message to Kim Hae-yeon to flee. Kim Hae-yeon is arrested and interrogated. After he is released, he wanders around in shock and ends up working at a photo studio in Longjing where he meets a girl named Yeo-ok. The photo studio is also linked to a revolutionary group where Yeo-ok has been working as a contact person for the group. Kim Hae-yeon and Yeo-ok try to leave to Seoul but they are attacked by a punitive expedition. As a result, Yeo-ok loses her right leg and Kim Hae-yeon barely manages to save himself. Kim Hae-yeon then leaves to inform the re...