From Politics to Ethics: Jung Yi Hyun, Kim Ae-ran, Jeon Sungtae, and Kim Yeonsu

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byJung Yi Hyun

The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s had a great influence on Korean literature, contributing to a decline of the political. Partly because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of Marxism, a great part of the progressive energy that governed Korean literature in the 80s split into sub-themes such as the inner world, everyday life, femininity, and culture. The economic crisis of 1997 marked another watershed, a point many critics tacitly agree on. After the economic crisis, Korean society was drawn into the demands of globalization and a free-for-all market economy that gave into the demands of global financial trends. This period marks the beginning of a new millennium literature in Korea.

One notable change is the unspoken agreement among writers on the impossibility of politics. Politics in the traditional sense is actually built on the premise of the resistance of the individual. But when the whole of society is drawn under the influence of consumer capitalism and even the individuals’ subconscious is structured like a product, resistance is impossible. The new writers of the 2000s are relatively free from the political imagination of literature in the 80s. The issues raised in the literary criticism of the 21st century such as the “trivialization of the individual,” “writing in a vacuum,” and “increase of obsessive narratives” are indicators of such a trend. Before the gargantuan capitalist system, writers are no longer able to find a foothold for heroic resistance, or have given up the search altogether.

Jung Yi Hyun is one writer who has depicted this reality through the most honest, cynical lens. Jung’s works appeared like a comet on the literary scene in 2002 as an exception to the Korean literary tradition that largely focused on portraying marginalized groups. The backdrop of Jung’s novels is Gangnam, Seoul, which attracts the wealthiest people in Korea and is consequently the frontier of consumer capitalist culture. It is realistically impossible to even dream of resistance in such a space. Jung chooses to handle this reality through a “politics of masquerade” in the Baudrillardian sense. Jung’s characters happen to be young women with office jobs who are blatantly well-adjusted to the system. They are vicious and not ashamed of their desires to climb the socioeconomic ladder. In “Romantic Love and Society,” marriage is a means of moving up to higher social classes. In “Trunk,” fashion and cars are status symbols. The women are so conniving and sly that they are subject to ridicule in the end, which is Jung’s point. By portraying individuals who have become perfect embodiments of consumer capitalism, Jung reveals the phoniness of these individuals and the situation that surrounds them. Jung thus explores ways for literature to remain political in an age where politics to have lost its relevance.


Romantic Love & Society
Jung Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 251p, ISBN 9788932014487


Kim Ae-ran is also a writer with a sensitive reaction to the overwhelming dominance of consumer capitalism. For example, her debut story, “Don’t Knock Before You Enter,” or one of her early works, “I Go to the Convenience Store,” have as main characters, unemployed young men and women, a staple in Korea after the financial crisis of 1997, thus capturing the dark cross sections society. Kim’s style, however, differs markedly from Jung’s in that Kim’s characteristic humor sets a completely different tone. The characters we see in her two story collections, Run, Pop, Run! and Mouthwatering, are comic characters who do not despair or pity themselves in spite of the horrid situations they find themselves in. Critic Kim Dongshik describes the likes of Kim’s stories as “family romance without resentment.” Tears and anger, indeed, do not play a great part in Kim’s novels as she regulates them with humor. It is unlikely that Kim’s characters, most of them raised in broken homes, lurking in the margins of consumer society without jobs or friends, know no tears or anger. Nevertheless, Kim bestows them with the power to control their tears and rage. The best example of this is the child abandoned by her father at the amusement park in “Salut d’Amour.” The child goes to the information desk and instead of saying, “I was abandoned,” she says, “My father’s lost.” The change from “I was abandoned” to “my father’s lost” generates humor, which turns sorrow into laughter. But the laughter is laden with meaning because we know that the situation, however funny, is no laughing matter. This makes Kim’s stories of the most miserable, young, and helpless characters appear warm and full of life. Kim Ae-ran, along with Yoon Sung-hee and Park Min-gyu, is one of the few writers who has learned to keep her sense of humor amidst a nightmarish reality.

1. Run, Pop, Run!
Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 268p, ISBN 9788936436902
2. A Pool of Saliva
Kim Ae-ran, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.


Another notable trend in Korean literature in the 2000s is the emergence of the theme, “ethics of the other,” also related to the decline of the political after the 1990s. The gradual diversification of Korean society after the Kim Young-sam administration pushed for an open labor market policy in 1992, which became increasingly visible through the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, made a lasting impact on literature as well. Hundreds of foreign workers flooded into Korea. The number of North Koreans defectors increased as the situation worsened for North Korea while the so-called Korean Wave and the subsequent Korean Dream swept across Southeast Asian countries. International marriages (which bore an uncanny resemblance to human trafficking) between Korean farmers and Southeast Asian women increased exponentially at internationally unprecedented rates. Thus, the most pressing discourse in Korea today is the diversity discourse. Writers are no exception, taking a keen interest in the subject.

Jeon Sungtae has been writing on this topic for the longest. He deals with the sensitive subject of North Korean defectors in “People Crossing the River,” and the inner world of Korean intellectuals helplessly exposed to the process of dis-identification in foreign lands (Mongolia) in “Korean Soldier.” What separates Jeon from other writers who have shown interest in this polarizing social issue and depict marginalized people as main characters, is his awareness of the dangers that in portraying “the other” one is always at risk of generalizing. Through constant re-examination, he maintains a balanced perspective where “the other” is neither idealized nor degraded. The best example of this is Wolves A polyphonic novel featuring six equal voices, the narrative adamantly refuses to reach a uniform conclusion or reconciliation by following a single perspective. Wolves opens an important new possibility for the exploration of “the other.”


Jeon Sungtae, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2009, 301p, ISBN 9788936437091


In essence, portraying an outsider or “the other” through the novel inspires the question, Is it possible to linguistically render “the other?” This question is connected to one of the most important questions in modern thought since the linguistic turn. “The other” in the sense of Levinas or Derrida is always an absolute exterior. They are not objects of understanding but of hospitality. This, then, makes it difficult to argue against the notion that the very attempt to render the other through one’s native language is a part of generalizing the other. Is there a way for a writer whose craft is based on words to overcome this obstacle? Kim Yeonsu devotes himself to answering this question.

The lover (usually a woman) in Kim Yeonsu’s stories, which often take the form of romances, is always missing. In “If I Climb the Snowy Mountain Another Month Later,” the woman exists in the form of an incomprehensible will. Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely, the long separation between lovers has turned the woman into a construct of memories that the narrator is endlessly reminded of, and in Song of the Night, the lover leaves behind a letter that is legible only at the beginning and takes her life at the start of the novel. In “The Comedian Who Went to the Moon,” the lover disappears into the moon in the wild. In some of Kim Yeonsu’s best works, the woman has always existed as an “absent manifestation.”


1. I’m a Ghostwriter
Kim Yeonsu, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 266p, ISBN 9788936436858
2. Song of the Night
Kim Yeonsu, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2008, 345p, ISBN 9788932019000
3. Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely
Kim Yeonsu, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2007, 392p, ISBN 9788954603980


The interesting thing is that the narrative of “searching for the woman who got away too soon” adds more than the melancholy of romances to Kim’s stories. First of all, the narrative is a driving force behind the post-structuralist theme of epistemological skepticism in regards to official textual records. In the end, the novel within the novel written by the protagonist of “If I Climb the Snowy Mountain Another Month Later” fails to record their love in words. “Bu neng shuo” is Chinese for “can’t speak.” How can words express her and the love they shared? How can words express war and the memories of the unspeakably horrific battles and turmoil? What contributes to Kim Yeonsu’s greatness is that he does not present himself as the usual “lonely novelist baffled before the imperfection of words.” Instead, he endlessly strives to reach a state of absoluteness beyond words and snowy mountains, wandering in a thick fog.

There is more. The lover’s premature disappearance is also, philosophically or ethically, played back as a variation on the theme of, can we reach “the other?” or can we understand or linguistically render “the other?” The woman always dies too soon and therefore remains an entity impossible to grasp beyond the language of the masculine symbolic system. “The Comedian Who Went to the Moon,” “Blessed New Year to You All,” and his other romances are wonderful examples of this variation. As is evident in the stories, women are always the unreachable other. Outsiders are always objects of hospitality, not generalizations in the guise of understanding. This is where Kim’s “search for the ever absent woman” narrative has arrived. No writer understands the impossibility and importance of portraying the other through language as he does. His success in this endeavor will no doubt have a great influence on Korean literature as it progresses through the age of diversity.