Exploring the Depths of Eco-Lit: Choi Sung Kak, Kim Jongseong, and Yi Si-baek

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byKo Inhwan

Eco-literature, or “eco-lit,” refers to literature that is critical of the latent dangers threatening the existence of humanity or of civilizations that harm the environment. It gained prominence in Korea in the nineties, succeeding the participatory literature wave of the eighties that included division literature and labor literature.

Despite the appearance of several novels dealing with the environment, Korean eco-lit has proven unable to get involved in real-life issues. While the so-called Deep Ecology movement was absorbed in criticizing rationalism and anthropocentricism, differences of race, gender, and class were muffled by normative voices. Eco-lit allows us to listen to these previously precluded voices of difference. Neither a blanket denial of civilization nor a unilateral obsession with nature can be a viable alternative to eco-lit, and this gives rise to the pressing need to explore the environmental issue from a real-world perspective.

Not many writers in Korea have consistently studied the ecological issue with a critical mind. Choi Sung Kak is unrivaled in Korean eco-lit for tackling the environmental issue head-on by experimenting with genre. The wearying, winding journey of the ecological movement in Korea is stamped upon his novels like a fossil imprinted with an extinct life form. For Choi, “literature is our first line of defense” against “environmental disasters that wittingly or unwittingly pose an overwhelming threat to our lives.” He presents us with a beautiful form of literature that “never gives up the vain hope that the world will get better,” even as it is at the “frontline of environmental calamity” where “humans have lost the crisis awareness essential to being human” and where they “have no interest in flora and fauna.” According to Choi, the environmental problem is a problem of “humans’ inner avarice, corruption, and apathy,” and of the “irresponsibility, impudence, and greed of a few men who gratify their selfish desires with specious false logic.”* This is the point where Choi’s fiction meets the lives of the socially disadvantaged who are victims of unbridled capitalism. This is why Flower World, the environmental group in his novel Himalayan Woman in Solitary Confinement, intervenes to protect the human rights of migrant workers. The underlying cause of environmental problems is “materialism, which turns nature, women, and the socially deprived into the Other and regards them as tools to be used.”

Kim Jongseong is another writer who has continuously studied the ecological issue. He believes “the chief culprit behind environmental destruction is human selfishness,” and explores Korea’s complex situation where “pre-modern, modern, and post-modern” modes of life coexist. His exploration of Korea’s severe ecological degradation and the effects of environmental pollution on the gritty lives of the lowest classes is incessant and tenacious. With A View with Hugging Trees (2005), Kim, who has been writing eco-lit since the eighties, “drew the attention of Korean society and the literary world by dealing with the environmental issue with a depth never before attempted in the history of Korean literature.”

In Village (2009), Kim effectively captures the “human ecology of peripheral humans living not in cities or villages but in the border zone.” In this work, the environmental issue does not appear on the surface but permeates scenes of everyday life. Kim relies on Murray Bookchin’s exploration of environmental problems in the “structural problems of human society” to provide the reader with a lively portrayal of different characters in a village. The lives of these characters naturally kindle an awareness of the environmental in the reader. Kim casts doubt on the normative voice of Deep Ecology that emphasizes a “return to nature and life,” and depicts everyday scenes of ecology teeming with the voices of difference in race, gender, and wealth distribution. He paints detailed scenes of conflict within the village’s human ecology, not only in the palpable tension between the natives and the village residents, but also among characters sandwiched between the two, as well as internal conflicts within each group. The differences of creation/destruction, urban/rural, and law/ethics in the village show no sign of being easily resolved.

In the “monster city” where so-called monster plants dance, the writer does not give up his ecological dream of a better life. In this coldhearted society where capitalism rules, the “sound of a bell” rings out, signaling the hope of purifying the “monster city” that is crawling with turbid desires by using the “embers” ignited by the injured bodies and minds of hurting souls. Kim has deepened and expanded Korea’s eco-literature by moving beyond accusation to introspection.

Finally, the novels of Yi Si-baek, who studied the environmental issue by linking it to the collapse of rural communities, cannot be overlooked. In works like Who Killed the Horse? (2008) and Hooker Bean (2010), the village is no longer a site for “growing crops to feed the family.” It is simply land to be invested in and to be “developed as sites for houses, factories, golf courses, and apartment blocks.” Rural life has been commodified under the label of “recreation and relaxation.” A materially prosperous society suffers a relative paucity of natural resources like air, water, and food. To remedy this shortfall, modern humans leave for ecological parks, museums, or weekend farms. Even as they reject nature, of which mediated life and labor is part, they are also attracted to the image of an idealized and ideated Nature. Yi vividly captures how the village is reimagined as a pastoral space for rest and relaxation after it has been ravaged by modernization. He uses popular language mixed with satire and humor to give an honest portrayal of the struggle to survive in the collapsing countryside. His novels allude to a new type of civilization that can supplement the defects of modern life by forcing us to reflect on the important values we excluded and rejected in the process of modernization that became entangled in the contradiction between an industrial society and the vestiges of an agrarian one. By reminding us that the crisis faced by rural communities is a crisis of ecology as well as of human civilization, Yi puts into practice the objective of eco-literature to “recover nature through the reorganization of civilization.” 


by Ko Inhwan
Professor of Contemporary Literary Criticism and
Head, Pan-African Cultural Studies Center
Kyunghee University


1 “River Donggang Flows through the Stork Rapids,” The Chased Bird (Silcheonmunhak, 2013)