The Dawn of Ecological Consciousness in Korean Literature

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byKim Jongseong

Korea’s industrialization kicked off in the early 1960s, pursuing the accumulation of capital based on a government-led monopolistic system that resulted in the magnification of harmful factors. In particular, the policy of setting up industrial complexes and concentrating industries regionally without any consideration for primary industries like agriculture, forestry, and fishing gave rise to serious environmental problems. In response, Korean writers began reflecting on the Park Chung-hee administration’s dehumanizing and destructive development-first economic policy through their novels that dealt with environmental issues.

Hong Sung-won’s novella Despot (1969) explores our awareness about the natural ecosystem through the symbol of a tiger, using allegory to criticize the military dictatorship that wielded absolute authority, while at the same time revealing an ecological consciousness. In “The Sun Sets in the Western Hills” (1972), published as part of his serialized novel Gwanchon Essays, Lee Mun Ku realistically portrays the environmental and ecological destruction in farming communities brought about by industrial modernization through the fate of a giant pine tree that withers away because of air pollution. Through the perspective of a police officer dispatched to a guard post at an industrial complex where he witnesses the sea being choked by discharged wastewater, Kim Yong Seong’s Above the Dead Sea (1976) shows that life cannot survive in a polluted ecosystem.

The trend of novels dealing with environmental issues that first appeared toward the end of the 1960s became even more pronounced by the second half of the 1970s, with the appearance of works by Cho Se- Hui, Kim Won il, and Han Seung-won. In The Dwarf (1978), Cho locates the root cause of environmental problems in the economic structure of capitalism and systematic social inequality. The monopolistic enterprises at the Eungang Industrial Complex cut back on expenses by releasing untreated pollutants directly into the river and the air. The ones who have to bear the damage resulting from the actions of the factory management are the “dwarfs.”

Cho dissects the structure of Korean society in the 1970s through the conflict between the ruling class and the underprivileged class, whom he symbolizes as the dwarfs, in order to show that environmental pollution and ecological destruction are closely connected with inequality. In doing so, Cho’s The Dwarf touches upon the realistic problems of Korea in the 1970s such as labor conflict and the rich-poor divide. Using fantastical techniques like allegory, symbolism, genre mixing, and overlapping scenes, on portrays the conflict and strife between the haves and the have-nots as though part of a fairy tale or an illogical world. At the same time, he also reveals the underlying reality of it all by subverting and liberating the Other. The only possibility the dwarfs have of overcoming their deplorable conditions is through fantasy. Only the death and resurrection of Yŏng-su, a dwarf’s son, and the fantasy represented by his brother Yŏsng-ho’s dream can restore the dwarfs’ dying lands and rivers into a world of glowing fireflies and blooming pansies. The apparition of a wrecking ball that cuts across the sky in a straight line above YŏEng-hŭ-i’s head alludes to the dwarfs’ tragic dream. The fantastical element of the book shines through in the scene where the dwarf launches the wrecking ball, even as he is bleeding. Yŏhng-ho’s remark that the dwarfs are at the bottommost level of the ecological pyramid, with as many as three levels above that want to consume them, is a reminder that the pain and anguish suffered by the dwarfs does not stop with their generation but passes on to their children as well.

Kim Won il’s Meditations on a Snipe (1979) deals with water pollution in industrial complexes. Major Yun’s comment, “There might be no actual warfare going on, but we’re still at war,” sheds light on the flipside of industrialization where everything is sacrificed at the altar of development. It alludes to the fact that the lives of migratory birds that are dying off due to environmental pollution and the lives of Byeong-guk and his father are not that different. Byeong-guk’s father is a displaced person who was forced to leave behind his family and fiancéin North Korea during the Korean War. If national division destroyed his father’s life then Byeong-guk’s life is destroyed by the regime.

In Warm Stone (1981), Kim deals with occupational disease in the form of chemical poisoning caused by sulfuric, nitric, and dichromic acids. The final passage when Young-hui, a new mother who thinks she is carrying a stone in her belly, discovers a life-like baby doll that can sing and gesticulate, evokes a new environmental consciousness.

Through the tragic lives of the victims’ families, Kim’s Hiroshima’s Flames (2000) sends the message that the future of humanity is bleak so long as the atom bomb exists on Earth as a symbol of terrifying power. He is inspired by a Christian worldview that believes that the lives of the imprisoned, the ill, and the starving are all meant to glorify the Lord or, to put it differently, by a sense of stewardship toward all creation. Yet we cannot approach the issue of the victims of the atom bomb without first properly appreciating the nuclear problem. Through Hiroshima’s

Flames, Kim opens our eyes to the nuclear issue that can not only destroy the environment but can also trigger a catastrophe on a global scale by causing the extinction of all life on Earth.

Han Seung-won’s novella Wolf and Sister (1980), which portrays the destruction of the sister’s body by pesticides in a folksy, pastoral manner, is a cautionary tale about the devastation of rural society and the destruction of rural lives brought on by industrial modernization. In A Sea of Lotuses (1997), a novel permeated by a Buddhist ecological consciousness critical of our anthropocentric worldview, Han deals with the loss of amenity with nature and the environmental issues incidental to the tourism and resort industry in a metaphysical manner. By putting forth a chickadee and a white poplar as narrators, he emphasizes the fact that a world in which humans lack remorse about being consumed by excessive desires is a bestial hell, and that the driving forces in creating this hell are the leaders of society. Finally, in Bullfrog (1997), Han makes us face the fact that our “otherized” desire is the root cause of the ecological crisis. 


by Kim Jongseong
Writer and Professor of General Education and Teaching
College of Humanities, Korea University