The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] What we can learn from Korean literature

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Nov. 7, 2017 - 17:55

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Experts agree that literature and film are excellent cultural texts as well as important social documents that faithfully record and vividly mirror the contemporary society from which they originate. Therefore, while reading Korean literature and viewing Korean films, we can find and understand the cultural phenomena and social milieu they try to depict and convey.

Reading Hwang Sok-young’s gripping novel “The Guest,” for example, we can imagine the atrocities of the Korean War, at a time when the two uninvited visitors from the West, Marxism and Christianity, collided with each other on the Korean Peninsula. Set in Sincheon in North Korea, the novel, which is based on a true story, depicts how the villagers, divided by Communists and Christians, slaughtered each other heartlessly due to ideological differences.

In Korea, small pox is called “the visitor” or “the guest,” because the uninvited disease from the West visits you unexpectedly and leaves indelible scars on your face when it is gone. Indeed, pockmarks on your face will never go away and you have to live with it for the rest of your life even after you are cured.

Likewise, we still seem to suffer the consequences of a horrible disease called “the visitor.” Today, we are still divided by the two antagonizing ideologies and are still fighting one another as if we were archenemies. We blame the West for sending us the uninvited visitors. In fact, however, it is we who have betrayed the true spirit of Marxism and Christianity and massacred others cruelly out of resentment and retribution.

Yi Mun-yol’s mesmerizing novella “Our Twisted Hero” superbly depicts the Korean society under the ruthless military dictatorship in the late twentieth century. Using an elementary school classroom as a microcosm of the Korean society, Yi brilliantly captures the suffocating atmosphere and subtle psychology of submissive, conforming people under the tyranny of the class president.

Regrettably, what Yi perceives and laments in his novella still seems to continue in today’s Korean society. Although the dictatorship is long gone, there are those who still want to wield political power and manipulate people ruthlessly just like the dictators they hated so much and there are those who try to flatter the men who have power for political gain. In addition, there are those who are obedient to powerful men in order to survive.

Kim Young-ha’s critically-acclaimed novel “The Republic Is Calling You” deals with a North Korean sleep agent who has settled down comfortably in South Korea and is married with children. He has become so used to the South that he is embarrassed when one day he is abruptly summoned back to North Korea. Critics have focused on his dilemma. “He is saturated with capitalism. Can he survive in North Korea?” Nevertheless, there is much more to the novel. Kim touches upon the complex issue of a brainwashed man cast in a new environment. In fact, there must be quite a few men like the protagonist of Kim’s novel in South Korea, men who are torn between the ideologies they are brainwashed with and a new, better environment that defies their previous ideological education that is obsolete now.

Shin Kyung-sook’s celebrated novel “Please Look after Mom” is a wonderful reminder of our ungratefulness to the people to whom we are indebted. When someone does a favor to us, we tend to take it for granted and are not grateful enough. To make matters worse, we often betray our benefactors and speak ill of them behind their backs or even criticize them malignantly. Foreigners may read Shin’s novel as a story of an affectionate relationship between a Korean mother and her children. To me, however, the novel is a heartbreaking, belated realization of our ungratefulness to those who have helped us or sacrificed for us in times of crisis. We belatedly realize that we are insolent ingrates only after we lose our precious ones such as our family members, friends, and allies.

Hwang Sun-mi’s international bestseller “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly” is not simply a feminist text. Some critics value the motif of escape while others, especially foreign readers, are fascinated by the deeply moving ending; the hen sacrifices herself for the hungry cubs of a weasel. At the same time, the novel’s latent theme seems to be “How to embrace differences.” For example, the hen hatches and raises a wild duckling, taking it in as her own baby. When the ugly duckling grows up and flies away with its own flock, the hen feels sympathy toward the weasel’s babies now. She does not care about the difference in species. By embracing differences, the hen could really fly, though metaphorically.

Reading modern Korean literature, we can perceive the chronic issues we have had and learn how to make our society a better place to live by solving the problems. Especially, recent Korean novels make us brood on the past, the present, and the future of Korea. If not, what is literature for? 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at -- Ed.