[Foreword] Korean Literature in the “Worabel” Age

  • onJune 26, 2019
  • byCha Mi-ryeong

Labor is a theme with a long history in Korean literature. Labor literature, which first appeared in the colonial literature of the 1920s and 1930s and later revived in the 1970s and 1980s, greatly contributed to the expression and growth of democratic consciousness. It is often said that labor came to be seen as an old subject after the democratization of South Korea was formally underway in 1987. The waning of the so-called master narrative and the loss of a collective political outlook were linked to the decline of labor literature.

However, Korean literature’s interest in working people and the workplace manifests itself in various ways even in the twenty-first century. As long as we live in a post-capitalist society, or, to put it more boldly, as long as the problems of the Anthropocene epoch are, in the end, a byproduct of capitalism, labor will remain a valid theme. In retrospect, we cannot talk about the stories of losers (or the jobless) that attracted attention after the 2000s or younger generation stories represented by the term “Hell Joseon” apart from the question of work and the feelings of competence or anxiety associated with it. A recent happening reinforces our interest in this topic. Jang Ryujin’s award-winning short story “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” which features a startup employee as its protagonist, received an unusually positive response on social media where it went viral. The title of a news article about the writer is suggestive: “The Techno Valley Hyperrealist Who Made Pangyo Workers Cry.” The spectacle of words like “worker” and “realist” in new arrangements and neologisms related to the workplace like gap-eul (superior-subordinate relationship) and worabel (shorthand slang for work-life balance) highlights the timeliness of this theme.

Thus, the special section in this summer issue focuses on “Working People in Korean Literature.” Young rising critic Kang Ji-Hee explores this theme with examples from Chung Serang’s novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-young, Kim Keum Hee’s short story “Jo Jung-gyun’s World,” Kim Sehee’s “Unremarkable Days,” and Jang Ryujin’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.” Kang gives interesting analyses of these stories under the dual framework of the “ethics of chivalry” and the “passion of the gambler,” and sheds light on the implications of the characters’ labor in these stories.

This issue is also chockfull of other interesting content. Kwon Yeo-sun, who published her latest novel, Lemon, this year, is our featured writer. We hope that her interview with Prof. Yoo Hui-sok and her essay can act as a guide to her fiction. Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (who won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize) has written a beautiful piece on the role of the translator for this issue’s Musings essay. Professors Barbara Wall and Anastasia Guryeva’s essays for our Inkstone series on Korean classical literature are also a must read. Check out the reviews section to see what Korean books are being published and read in different parts of the world.

The 2019 summer issue is the first issue to be published with our new editorial board. We are experts in different fields, but we will gather our efforts so that KLN can bring you more substantial content with a lighter footstep. After seeing the fruit produced by the hard work of the contributing writers, translators, and LTI Korea staff, we send forth this summer issue out to the world.


Cha Mi-Ryeong
Professor of Korean Literature
GIST (Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology)