70 Years of Independence and Division: The Flow of Korean Literature Through the Eras

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byKim Jonghoi

Division, Industrialization, and Democratization


In modern Korean history, 1945 marks liberation from Japanese occupation and division of the country into North and South, thus beginning the “era of division” which casts a shadow over the lives of Koreans to this day. In other words, liberation and division came at the same time, and both were carried out by outside forces. The tragic circumstances of the latter are still ongoing and thus there is no refuting the fact that all Korean literature from 1945 onwards can be called “division era literature.”

Of course, such circumstances, while external to literature, have a major impact within the literary world, and while this year marks a full seven decades since division, in one way or another Korean literature is still burdened with the weight of the wounds inflicted by partition. There are many examples of poets and novelists who, within this difficult historical and social environment, have taken these conditions as subject matter and created incredible works of literature; and indeed this phenomena can be found not only in the literature of Korea but in writing originating from a great many countries. An old Eastern expression conveys this in “the misfortunes of the nation enrich the poet’s art.”

While this expression merely implies respect for the artistic achievement of such literature, the lives of the people from which these works derive cannot have been happy. This becomes even clearer if we consider the following terms used to refer to each stage of Korean literature from 1945 onwards. Literature from the period beginning with liberation to the start of the Korean War in 1950 is “space of liberation literature,” literature from 1950 to the armistice of 1953 is “wartime literature,” and writing from the armistice to the end of the 1950s is “post-war literature.” The ideological opposition between South and North that began during the “space of liberation literature” remained consistent throughout the war and post-war periods.

To be sure, in post-war literature there are many works that were engrossed in the need to depict the immediate task of their characters as one of survival, and to portray the defeat and defiance of the masses in the context of the social reality of confusion and devastation. However, it cannot be denied that such descriptions and depictions of the cruel realities of the day mirrored those that recounted the turbulent times of the division era. On top of this, the severing of north and south along the border meant that citizens could no longer go back and forth, creating a new realm of literature by writers who had fled the North and settled in the South.

As a leading writer of division literature, Hwang Sun-Won depicted his own experiences with North Korean society and post-war South Korea in his novel The Descendants of Cain. In addition, his Trees on a Slope presents the lives of young people trying to deal with the war and cope in the destruction of its aftermath. Writers who presented the immense suffering of the late 1950s in particularly sharp detail include Son Chang-sop and Chang Yong-hak, while writers such as Choi In-hun and Lee Ho-cheol presented the same subject matter anew in the context of the relationship between North and South. At the same time, among the female writers who described such circumstances with a heightened sensitivity, Choe Chung-Hui and Pak Kyongni have come to be seen as the leading lights of the era.

Beginning in the 1960s the flow of literature became much more complex as conditions in Korean society gradually began to stabilize. From this time to the present day, ways of referring to Korean literature continue to emerge such as “divided literature,” “literature of separation,” “industrialization era literature,” and “literature longing for a unified age.” In particular, the creative and thematic angles taken in Korean literary works from 1960 onwards have at their core issues relating to division and industrialization.

As the generation that lived through the war as children grew up and began writing, many of their works revived memories of their desolate childhoods, and, as mentioned above, though these writers lived difficult lives, their creative endeavors were endowed with the weight and intricacy of lived experience. The poets and novelists who took on these themes and who thrived in the 1970s can still be considered to make up the mainstream of Korean literature to this day. The novels of Kim Won-il, Jeon Sang-guk, Han Sung-won, and Yi Mun-yol are examples of this.

However, Korean society ushered in a new era following the influence of the 4.19 Revolution in 1960 when students became the driving force in the fight against the despotic rule and ballot-rigging of the Rhee Syngman regime, and the May 16th military coup d’état that followed quick on the revolution’s heels (as well as the era of economic development and industrialization these events gave rise to). Of course, literature followed suit, and works were produced which displayed a diverse social consciousness. Works dealing with popular resistance and the longing for political democracy as well as workers’ awakening to the irrationality of industrialization began to float to the surface and occupy an important position in the literary scene.

Out of the parched and desolate literature of the early 1960s a new literary world opened up with writers like Kim Seungok and his short story “Journey to Mujin,” which tried to rediscover a lyrical sensibility, and Yi Chong-Jun’s “The Wounded” which replaced the interrelation between the self and reality with a single pathological phenomenon. Works that addressed the social issues of the time in a more direct way include Hwang Sok-yong’s “Strange Land,” Yun Heunggil’s “The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes,” and Cho Se-Hui’s “The Dwarf.”

In addition, works that displayed a critical stance towards the devastation of rural villages include Song Kisook’s Elegy for Jaratgol and Lee Mun Ku’s Gwanchon Essays. It is also important to note the literary works that focused on the pathological sensation of the city that arose as an unavoidable side effect of intensified industrialization. The writings of Choi Ilnam, Park Wansuh, and Choi Inho are representative examples of this. The aftermath of economic development, which reached into every corner of the countryside and cities, can be found in contemporary literature as well, represented in even more in-depth and multifaceted ways.

Up to this point, most explanation has focused on novels, as stories are more straightforward when it comes to identifying the interrelation between social and literary history through narrative. In truth, this is not a proper standpoint from which to discuss literature. In Korean literature, there is such a wealth of superior quality poetry that it would be a grave injustice to skip over the genre. In a format such as this, however, it is difficult to handle such a vast corpus with the care that it deserves, so the discussion that follows is limited to a handful of poets representative of their eras.

In response to the downtrodden mood of the 1960s, there were many poets that strove to overcome the doubt and despair of the times. Poets such as Kim Soo-young with “Blue Sky” and Shin Dongyup in his collection, Asanyeo, expressed the spirit of the age through verse. The history of poetry from 1970 onwards by far and away begins with the voice of popular resistance that arose from Kim Ji-ha’s “Five Bandits.” In this poem, Kim took a stand against the Park Chung-hee regime, calling the main culprits of the widespread corruption of the time the “five bandits” mercilessly lampooning their shameful conduct. As a result, he was imprisoned, but he stood his ground and became a legendary figure among the poets of the day as well as for later generations. In addition, Farmer's Dance by Shin Kyeong-nim, and National Territory by Cho Taeil share the same legacy. 


Post-Industrialism and New Forms of Literature


In literature as well as society, the 1980s were characterized by the unstoppable force of the issues that emerged following the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement, which exterted a powerful and lasting influence. Both poetry and novels could not help but be colored with the concept of “literature as a social movement” and this gave rise to the urgent feeling that literature had to fight against the military regime in power. This overwhelming current continued unabated until the late 1980s when the military regime was replaced by a civilian government and the political maelstrom began to calm.

Following these tumultuous years, Korean literature of the 1990s began to show very different literary sensibilities and techniques than in preceding eras. Not only had political and social conditions changed greatly within Korea itself, but internationally, the fall of the Eastern-bloc and the air of reconciliation brought about by the easing of Cold War tensions also exerted a significant influence on relations between North and South Korea. As literature is inevitably interlinked with such changes in the times and in society, a corresponding shift appears in the writing of the time.

Poets and novelists were free to elevate their own diversity and pluralism without repression or restrictions and make important statements about society, while changes in social conditions and the transition from print media and analog culture to digital media and image culture gave rise to a literary environment completely different from that of the past. The emergence of the symptoms of post-industrialism in Korean literature also came about within this context.

The writer who really led the way in terms of literary change is Kim Young-ha, the author of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. While clearly getting a kick out of storytelling, he has taken a keen interest in displaying various aspects of social change in Korea, while also representing a transformation in Korean literature towards an expanded awareness of other countries beyond the peninsula. Park Min-gyu, on the other hand, is another writer who has manifested the shift from traditional ways of life to the digital era in a whole host of incarnations. Lee Kiho has plied readers with in-depth depictions of everyday life in post-modern society through his novels. And yet, the writers mentioned thus far cannot be said to represent Korean literature in its entirety. In discussing the overall unfolding of Korean literature in the seventy years since division, I have merely referred to works and authors that demonstrate the nature of the changing times.

The changes in Korean literature have not only derived from within, but also from without, as external forces realigned the geopolitical landscape, affecting relations between the North and the South. While there are literary works which look towards a united future for the Korean people, they show that in reality the ideological opposition between North and South is not as clear-cut as once imagined. Works have emerged that display a transformation in the perspective, subject material, and themes of South Korean literature that touch on North Korea. In addition, the works of writers who have resettled in South Korea after defecting from the North in recent years are now as numerous and noteworthy as to afford their own genre, referred to as “defector literature.”

One of the ways in which people refer to Korean literature after 1990 is as “the era of women’s literature.” When female voices come to narrate works of fiction, the reader discovers new ways of seeing the world, which may represent a more fluid or more meticulous approach to literary creativity. At the same time, as many in the literary establishment have felt remorse and done much soul searching regarding the status of women, unbridled depictions of Korea's stifling patriarchy and explorations of female sexuality—which had until then been very much taboo—were taking the literary world by storm. Writers such as Shin Kyung-sook, Eun Heekyung, Kim Hyoung Kyoung, Kim Insuk, Lee Hye-gyeong, and Seo Hajin are some of the key writers who pioneered this era. Readers eagerly embraced the works of these writers.

Writers such as Jon Kyongnin, Han Kang, Yoon Sunghee, Chun Woon-young, Jo Kyung Ran, Ha Seong-nan, and Pyun Hye-Young, to name a prominent few, joined the ranks of this central force. What readers discovered in the works of these female authors was not just a break with the literature of the past, but completely new conditions of awareness that developed in nuanced ways and directions leading to an incredible flourishing of Korean literature.

The general historical and social flow of Korean literature since division outlined above also represents the social conditions and turbulence of life on the peninsula over the past seventy years. Compared to the histories of many other countries, there have been many arduous and difficult periods in the history of Korea. Therefore in the representations of history in literature there are many painful and forlorn passages. After Korean society became more stable, there was a boom in literature from a pluralistic perspective. As the conditions for the formation of Korean literature have been based on events in world history, and as Korea has stood as a pivotal balancing point for power and conflict in the region, it is important to pay close attention to the interrelation between Korean literature and the lives of Koreans. 


by Kim Jonghoi
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Kyunghee University