From the Maelstrom of the Korean War

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byBang Min-Ho

“Postwar literature” is both a concept and a category used in literary histories of modern Korean literature. Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the term became prominent and now is commonly used to refer to literature written in the period between the armistice of July 27th, 1953 and the 4.19 Revolution of 1960. However, the concept of postwar literature occupies a very unclear position in contemporary Korean discourse. Many writers, including Son Chang-sop, Chang Yong-hak, and Pak Kyongni, are labeled as postwar writers, but in fact when works by such writers are mentioned, those written up to the mid-1960s are often referred to as postwar fiction. Therefore, before discussing postwar literature it is necessary to clear up this temporal uncertainty.

First and foremost, we must consider that while the war began on June 25th, 1950 and raged on until the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, the hostilities and the tensions of the system that followed are yet to be resolved. Korea remains a divided country owing to the perpetuity of the system that became established following the war. Postwar literature can be seen as the literary superstructure spanning this long and ongoing era. Therefore I propose to name the literature of the period up to the mid-60s that I will discuss as “first-phase postwar literature.”

Yet there is one more important provision to keep in mind before discussing Korean postwar literature: it is the fact that, in Korea, “postwar” has a dual and overlapping nature. Korea gained independence from Japan on August 15th, 1945. The independence of Korea was a direct outcome of World War II, meaning that the historical events following liberation were already set in motion through the postwar structures put in place after the Second World War. Hence, “postwar,” which refers to literature after the Korean War, overlaps with a previous “postwar” concept originating with the Second World War. It can be said that these two postwar periods coexist even today.

On the other hand, another element to consider when discussing the postwar literature of Korea is the literature of those who journeyed south as refugees. This “northern refugee literature” group refers to the works written by writers who fled southwards in the period between liberation and the fortification of the border along the 38th parallel. I suggest that a better way to refer to these writers is as “writers who lost their hometowns.” With such a concept, we can group together writers with different psychological and ideological characteristics in order to distinguish them from those who had their familial roots in the South.

In the eight years between liberation in 1945 and the end of the Korean War in 1953, young writers who had grown up in the South secured hegemony in the Korean literary scene. The writer Kim Tong-ni, critic Jo Yeon-hyeon, and poet Seo Jeongju—as well as the poets of the Cheongnokpa group such as Jo Ji-hun, Pak Mog-Weol, and Pak Tu-Jin—were seen as the leading lights of Korean literature. When the Korean peninsula was divided following liberation and many literary figures were espousing socialist ideology, these writers adhered to their belief in the inherent value of literature, especially in the face of totalitarianism. This became the rallying point for their justification of the importance and value of literature for literature’s sake.

In contrast to this group, poets, writers, and critics who had come down from the North had to continue onwards in a state of unsettled uncertainty regarding their everyday lives and their place in the literary community. Although they came south to escape the political system forming in the North, they could not help but be engulfed by the reality of deep disharmony in the South due to economic lack and decay, political dictatorship, cultural upheaval, and corruption. These writers who had lost their hometowns had to forge a new path for themselves through their literature, which we can classify into three basic forms of discourse: the return to one’s hometown, acclimatization to new surroundings, and the search for another idealized homeland. Sometimes each of these discourses can be found in the work of a single writer, or even a single novel, while in other cases we can identify writers who have pursued a single theme.

The literary critic who was most visibly active during this postwar period was Lee O Young. Lee was critical of the drive to rediscover and reinstate a “people’s” minjung tradition and the sublimation of postwar reality in through “pure literature” as espoused by Kim Tong-ni and Seo Jeongju. Lee called instead for the creation of literature that resisted reality, a new literature in opposition to the literary hegemony of the clique that had been active since before liberation. For him, this resistance implied the task of mediating between the exclusive focus on the identity of the outgoing era, the new age which had already begun, and the necessity of engaging with contemporary world literature.

The death and violence caused by war, the ruin left in its wake, the uprooted people and moral upheaval it created—as well as the global scale of the conflict that led to the opening up of Korean society—make the “first-phase postwar literature” completely different from the literature that came before and after.

The first example of such work is by Hwang Sun- Won. Through novels such as The Descendants of Cain, Trees on a Slope, and Human Graft, Hwang depicts the destructive influence of ideological conflict and war on the lives of young people in particular, while trying to find ways to overcome adversity. In addition, Chang Yong-hak and Son Chang-sop are often referred to as having created the most typical examples of postwar literature. Using allegory, Chang Yong-hak’s novel Legend of the Circle frames the division of North and South, ideological opposition, and the Korean War in the context of world history. Whereas Son Chang-sop, through his beautifully structured series of short stories including “Surplus Mortal” and “Rainy Day,” makes a cutting critique of the pathological conditions characteristic of the war and postwar periods.

Choi In-hun and Lee Ho-cheol are writers who provide the last instances of first-phase postwar literature. In Choi In-hun’s The Square, by following the protagonists’ path in life—having traveled from the South to the North and then having chosen to be taken to a third country—the novel combines the unique awareness of a writer who fled south leaving his hometown with an uncompromisingly realistic attitude. By contrast, in Lee Ho-cheol’s Petit Bourgeoisie, by presenting the experiences and choices of a youngster who has fled south and is living in the temporary capital Busan, the novel seeks to trace the process of the new establishment of postwar society.

Many of the most prominent postwar works of literature were written by female authors. Among them, Pak Kyongni’s Market and Battlefield and Choe Chung-Hui’s Endless Romance are controversial works that depicted the violence inflicted on women during the war in intricate detail. In addition, short stories such as “Zelkova Sapling” by Kang Shin-Jae, “The Precipice of Myth” by Han Malsook, and “Standing Statue” by Sohn Jang-Soon, all convey the subtlety of the moral awareness of the so-called après girl. 


by Bang Min-Ho
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Seoul National University