[Delve] Why does Korean lit have a serious and heavy image?

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byKim Mi-jung

In this section, members of our editorial board answer questions about Korean literature culled from an open survey from our readers. Touching upon recent trends, historical antecedents, and literary devices, we hope you enjoy examining some deeper aspects of thoughts readers have had about Korean literature.—Ed.



The Korean literature I have come in contact with shows a wide thematic spectrum, but I am curious why it has such a serious and heavy image?


Saito Mariko, the Japanese translator of the bestselling Korean novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, said that Korean literature once had the image of a “politically correct literature.” Korean literature’s “serious” and “heavy” image is probably related to this “politically correct” image.

Obviously, literature is always closely related to the culture and history of its region and linguistic sphere and thus, Korean literature’s image is also inextricably linked to the history and culture of Korea.

Any discussion of modern Korea up to the 1980s would be unthinkable without mention of its colonial history, the Korean War, or the fight for democracy. And throughout the course of these histories, Korean literature played a key role in guiding Korean society and its people. Even during times of great suppression of the media and freedom of speech, literature did its best to speak about society through various artistic devices.

Of course, the Korean literature of today is incomparably more diverse in its themes and subject matter; it fuses different genres, attempts new experiments, and abounds in an imagination that stretches far beyond reality. But the image and role that has come to be expected of Korean literature cannot be wiped away so easily. Indeed, even now, Korean literature is especially insightful and detailed in its commentary on structural irrationalities and absurdities. The translated works of Korean literature that have found success beyond Korea’s borders also appear to belong to this tradition.

On the other hand, the modern people of today are always connected to one another through “new media,” able to engage in light and fast communication. However, overwhelmed by the speed of daily life, people are increasingly fatigued and often do not have the time to reflect. Perhaps what we need then in this modern age is the time to think about serious and heavy things. In this world, we are swept along by a whirlwind of speed and superficiality. But there are still many problems in this world that require us to stop and think seriously. In this way, being serious and heavy might actually be an important virtue in this day and age.


Translated by Sean Lin Halbert


Kim Mi-jung
Literary Critic, KLN Editorial Board Member