Literature Takes Up the Fight for Freedom and Equality

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byHong Yong Hee

The 1960s: Aftermath of a Revolution Denied

Korean literature of the 1960s can be summed up in the themes of “aftermath of the 4.19 Revolution” and “introspective fighting back.” The popular revolution that came to a head on April 19th, 1960 was the result of a stirring from a society that was trapped in a victim mentality following the postwar years of the 1950s. People were awakening to freedom and democracy, criticizing the excessive powers of those in control, and seeking historical recognition of the development of the nation. However, the aspirations of the 4.19 Revolution were trashed by a military coup d’état, which took place on May 16th the very next year. In the wake of the coup, the failed aspirations of the 4.19 Revolution were internalized and came to play out as a literary fight back.

First, as an existential search within the context of despair over the 4.19 Revolution, Kim Seungok’s “Journey to Mujin” (1964) used the theme of the prodigal son to portray the protagonist’s efforts to relieve himself of a string of past memories and embarrassments, but in the end fails to escape from the reality of experience. Rather than providing a path out of the maze of conscience, the protagonist’s hometown of Mujin traps him again in the rhythms of everyday life. As a space where things defy any set order, Mujin is inseparable from the symbolic fog it is known for, emphasizing the absence of hope in 1960s Korea.

In this same vein, using intelligent and ideologically aware language, Yi Chong-Jun conveyed his observations and reflections on the bleak realities of the time in works such as “The Wounded” (1967). Here, Yi described the deep-rooted collective psychic scarring that lingers long after the psychological experiences of war.

Secondly, the so-called division literature of the 1960s reflects the ways in which awareness of national division and its consequences grew in the moments of freedom opened out by the 4.19 Revolution. Writers went beyond the trends of unconditionally anti-communist or anti-war polemics and instead examined the causes from a more balanced perspective, searching for ways to overcome the rift. Choi In-hun pioneered this category of literature with The Square (1960), in which he called for more objective soul-searching with regard to the ruling ideologies of both North and South. Similarly in Lee Ho-cheol’s Panmunjeom (1961), the emptiness of the structures of oppression in both North and South are put into harsh perspective. Whereas Pak Kyongni took a slightly different approach in Market and Battlefield (1964), taking a step back and using the examples, respectively, of a socialist, a staunch nationalist, and an opportunist to explore the way ideologies affected the lives of individuals.

Turning to poetry, Kim Soo-young and Shin Dongyup are two major f igures known for compositions that perfectly captured and gave form to the spirit of the 1960s. As the revolutionary awareness of the 4.19 Revolution crouched beneath the new military government, poems by Kim Soo-young such as “The Joke of Star Country,” “Blue Sky,” and “Grass,” captured the deeply felt skepticism and despair of the era with biting observations and satire aimed as Kim's own strata of society, the petit bourgeoise. Taking a very different approach, Shin Dongyup sang about how traditional values, including Eastern learning, could be the basis for recovering a communal way of life in his poetry collections Asanyeo (1963) and Geum River (1969).


The 1970s: Industrialization and Equality

In the 1970s, Korean society underwent a variety of drastic changes in line with the rapid unfolding of industrialization. While material economic growth was achieved under the forceful hand of the government, modern industrialization was dependent on rock-bottom wages, export-driven production, and a focus on heavy industries; thus the growth of the economy brought with it the alienation of rural villages, an extreme urban-rural development gap, an unequal distribution of wealth, and the dehumanization of laborers, as well as the devastation of the environment and serious pollution issues. Hence, there was a heavy focus in Korean literature of the 1970s on criticizing these problems of industrialization and the search for ways to overcome them.

The first trend to note in literature from the 1970s is the emergence of class conflict and workers’ issues as subject matter. In Hwang Sok-yong’s “Strange Land” (1971), we get a detailed account of wage exploitation and the conditions suffered by construction workers following a strike. In “The Road to Sampo” (1973), Hwang examines the lives of wandering laborers and the emotional discord caused by the dismantling of fishing and farming villages. Continuing along this line in “The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes” (1977) by Yun Heunggil, we can see the conditions of the urban poor who were first rural farmers, then were uprooted and became itinerant laborers before finally settling in the city slums. In “The Dwarf” (1976), with his characteristically exquisite prose, Cho Se- Hui tackles the realities faced by laborers and the conditions of labor-management issues brought about as industrial social structures became engrained.

The second theme is the increased critical awareness of rural devastation. In this category of literature, the main focus is the break-up of rural villages as a consequence of the urban-focused policies of the 1970s. Han Sung-won's "In the Heart of the Mountains" (1976) deals mainly with the folksy sensibilities and vitality of the fast disappearing farming villages. In Song Kisook’s “Elegy for Jaratgol” (1977) we are shown the awakening and adaptation of rural villagers to the structural inconsistencies and pressures of society. In Lee Mun Ku’s works such as “Dream of Lingering Sorrow” (1970), “The Ballad of Kalmori” (1978), and “Our Neighborhood” (1978), the devastation of rural villages and the abnormal ballooning of the urban labor force are brought to light by the use of rustic language and rural sentiment.

The third trend can be categorized as the description of the pathological conditions of city life brought about by industrialization. The rapid spread of industrialization brought about the extreme side effects of human alienation, boundless materialism, and moral unrest. Through Choi Ilnam’s “Seoulites” (1975), the social conditions of class alienation and the loss of basic humanity are described with razor sharp accuracy. “Staggering Afternoon” (1978) and “Year of Famine in the City” (1979) by Park Wansuh brought to the forefront the negative realities of city life, thus emphasizing the importance of living humanely.

Poetry from the 1970s, on the other hand, pursued an aesthetic through the return of inherently Korean lyrical forms and styles. Adopting the narrative pansori style for his “Five Bandits,” Kim Ji-ha created a cutting satire of the structure of oppression instituted by the ruling government and the decadent corruption of that era. Farmer's Dance (1971) by Shin Kyeong-nim meanwhile presented a realistic depiction of the conditions in which the lives of farmers were played out, having been alienated from the process of industrialization. In National Territory (1975), Cho Taeil used the “Series novel” form to create an honest portrayal of the history of the divided lives of the Korean people. 


by Hong Yong Hee
Literary Critic and 
Professor of Media, Literary Creative Writing
Kyunghee Cyber University