Response to the New Century: Overview of Korean Novels in the 2000s
Kim Sung-hwan

Literary Critic
Professor of Korean Literature
Pohang University of Science and Technology

While the start of a new century does not interrupt the continuity of our lives, it is natural that we try to find meaning in different time periods such as decades and centuries. Moreover, any literary critic should feel obliged to attach a profound interpretation to such periods. I believe this is a natural human desire that helps to recognize, or even highlight, the differences between the different time frames even though the numerical difference itself does not halt the flow of human life.
The greatest change in Korean society around the start of the 21st century was the trauma of the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis. Overlapped with political repercussions, the “monster-like” economic disaster laid the groundwork for a new societal order in the new millennium. Neoliberal ideas seemed to permeate every corner of the society, thrusting the nation onto an unprecedented socioeconomic structure. Unemployment prevailed, and the modern democratic system was brought into question, while many had to struggle to stay afloat. The neoliberal infusion transformed the nation into a new existence that completely differed from the pre-crisis past.
In literature, the break point from the past came from Japanese philosopher and literary critic Kojin Karatani, who famously warned “the end of modern literature” in Korea, alarming many Korean literary critics and writers. While the validity of his assertion remains to be further discussed, the controversy over the vitality of Korean literature called for the need to reflect over the role of literature and the restoration of its values.
Some opponents of Karatani’s view claim that Korean literature, especially the novels, is witnessing a rich harvest. New literary journals enter the market, and they continue to publish prize-winning works. At least in terms of the number of new products, the warning about a crisis of Korean literature seems far removed, they say. In particular, Korean literature has seen vigorous convergence and amalgamation with non-literary genres, such as movies, musicals and comic books.
Literary critic Cho Young-il, however, argues that such quantitative growth does not lead to active readership. Proliferation of literary periodicals does not prevent an end to modern Korean literature, he says. If Cho’s argument is deemed to support Karatani’s assertion, then the Korean case may be counter-proof to the Japanese experience, where the literary creativity first decreased in the quantitative terms.  
As of now, more disputes over the validity of an idea opined by a foreign philosopher may not be of great significance. The “end” of literature asserted by Karatani does not implicate the “extinction” of literature and literary works. Hence, the important job left for us is to outline the new literary landscape that would emerge after that “end.”
Literary Imagination of the New Century
I believe that the key premise of our discussion here is that literature has eternal life and the quantitative growth of literary works published in Korea may be interpreted as the advent of a new literary trend. Some may oppose this idea and they anticipate the proliferation of Korean literary works during the past decade only signals “a brief glitter before twilight.”
But those who believe in the immortality of literature and those who anticipate its imminent death are both faced with the same assignment, which is to comprehend the Korean literature of our time. For the job, it is necessary to capture the unique characteristics of Korean literature by examining literary works published in the past decade.
Analysis of the novels belonging to a certain period of time calls for a study of their unique literary imagination and languages. The uniqueness often involves description of certain events that carry historical importance.
On September 11, 2001, two huge buildings collapse. The ghost watches the scene over its father’s shoulders. What would the ghost have thought?
On the boat, we are speechless. We are always speechless. What can I say about this silence that grows like fingernails? Suddenly all sounds move far away. The sound of the engine of the boat, the sound of the boat passing through the river, and the murmurs of the many tourists on the boat, all move far away. Out of sudden, the world is vacant. Desolate. I vanish.
What is this vague uneasiness? I feel that my life is threatened. By what? And for what.
        - Han Yu-ju, “And the Music,” To the Moon  (Moonji Publishing, 2006), p. 108
When the establishment that symbolizes authority and order collapsed, the writer is falling into the pit of uneasiness and silence. The protagonist and the ghost lose words and reality fades away. The writer sinks into silence. Her silence is not a rhetorical device. Rather, it is a symptom of the writer’s inner conflicts and hesitation. When many roads exist but the protagonist feels lost (as in Han’s “To the Moon”), and when a person disappears without a trace (in Han’s “Fugue Macabre”), the flow of the narration is disrupted and falls into complete speechlessness. According to Han, the silence could also be caused by the separation of body and soul after a person’s physical death (“And the Music”).
Another key feature of literary imagination is found in the stories of metamorphosis of humans by such writers as Park Min-gyu, Cheon Myeong-gwan, Park Hyeong-seo, Yun Seong-hee and Kim Eon-su. Through their filters of imagination, reality is nullified. In his novel “Bread from Castile,” Park Min-gyu transmutes human life into those of the animals. In his imaginative world, it is deemed natural that people change into raccoons, sunfish, pelicans, giant squids, etc. A man of great wit, Park portrays an imaginary world that betrays the principle of causality and hence transcends reality. His novel, in a way, is a fabulous joke, replacing humans for material objects. In addition, Oh Hyeon-jong substitutes humans with ghosts in his short stories “Siren” and “Ghost Busters.” Such reversal and transmutation are as intriguing as the mysterious files depicted in the novel “Cabinet” by Kim Eon-su.
Their imagination of human metamorphosis is closely linked with new styles of narratives. The non-realist literary thoughts are conveyed in a manner that the narrative flows are often disrupted, reversed, and interrupted. For example, the chronological order is overturned in Cheon Myeong-gwan’s “The Whale.” The stories of women are full of coincidences, exaggerations and fantasies. According to Cheon, the overuse of “principles” told by literary characters undermines the causal value of the principles themselves. Novelists Yun Seong-hee of “The Flu” and Park Hyeong-seo of “Things You Need to Know before Raising a Rabbit” and “The Fiction of Midnight” also build their narratives upon surreal ideas spurred by wild imagination. Stories of phantoms and deviations to the illusory world mingle with descriptions of the reality.
In short, the volubility of Cheon Myeong-gwan’s discourse, the dry dysphemism of Park Hyeong-seo and the fast-paced narrative of Yun Seong-hee, if seemingly contradictory, have a common ground with the silence of Han Yu-ju in the sense that they all recognize the oppressive reality. In a bid to more freely express their imagination, they all try to break away from the fetters of tradition and rationality in their narratives.
The influence of popular culture is also significant. The mass culture has become a major source of imagination for Korean novels in the new millennium. “A Blue Plastic Extraterrestrial Doll” by Seo Jun-hwan, “The Morning of Chimera” by Cho Ha-hyeong, “Penguin News” by Kim Jung-hyeok and “Adventures of Bond Girl Mimi” by Oh Hyeon-jong are heavily influenced by spy series and science fictions. “A Waltz for Three” by Yun E-hyeong, and “Who killed Kurt Cobain?” and “Is Leslie Cheung Dead?” by Kim Kyeong-uk discovered their literary motifs in popular cultural figures. In sum, the Korean novels in the 21st century will continue to increase exchange and convergence with pop culture as they try to free themselves from the bondage of tradition.
Transborder Adventures
With the rapid globalization of capitalist economy and neoliberalist ideas, the authoritative power of a nation-state is tarnished. The territorial borders have lost their function as a cognitive frame for writers. The Korean novels produced during the past decade have launched cross-border exploration of imagination beyond the nationalist territorial restrictions, marking a radical departure from the modern literary tradition.
For example, a series of Hwang Sok-yong’s novels published during the past decade often take a global stage. In his novel “The Shadow of Arms,” Hwang examines the Vietnam War in an international context, discarding a nationalist perspective. In “Sim Cheong,” he extends the scale of adventure of a Korean traditional fictional figure into the broader East Asia and embraces the region’s colonial history into the novel. The story of human trafficking of a young girl named Sim Cheong takes place in Joseon period Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Okinawa and Kyushu. Hwang’s “Baridegi” portrays a North Korean girl named Baridegi who flees from the oppressive regime. Her odyssey ends by arriving in London. By carrying over the mythic figure with shamanic origins onto a global setting and transforming her into a North Korean refugee, the author underscores the interconnectivity between coincidences and the present world events.
Whereas Hwang focuses on the transnational convergence between local myths and world history, younger writers have paid closer attention to the psychology of the border-crossing protagonist. For example, Kang Yeong-suk’s “Lina” portrays a girl, who embarks on a journey abroad and undergoes enormous hardships and violence on the way. Lina, the female character who may be associated with a North Korean defector, chooses to become a nomad, refusing to settle down in any one country. Focusing on Lina’s psychology as she undergoes repetitive events, the story ends with her escape across another border.
The issue of fading borderlines and weakening nation-state also occurs on the local stage. Kong Seon-ok’s “Nomadic Family” and Baek Jeong-hee’s “Brood Parasitism” depict the life of immigrants and the realities of international marriages. Lee Myeong-rang in “My Half Brothers” and Park Bum-shin in “Namaste” write about violence and poverty faced by foreign laborers in Korea. Additionally, both “Empire of Lights” by Kim Young-ha and “The Private life of the State” by Lee Eung-jun deal with the inter-Korean relations and ideological confrontation based on the view that the power structure of modern nation-states has collapsed.
Life in the Capitalist Economy
In capitalist society, human desire is expressed and satisfied by consumption. Female protagonists are obsessed with consumption in many novels such as Jeong E-hyeon’s “My Sweet City,” Baek Yeong-ok’s “Style,” Seo Yu-mi’s “Fantastic Ant Lion’s Pit” and Oh Hyeon-jong’s “Divine Snobs.” The heroines of these novels expect that the acts of consumption, whether through goods, men or marriage, will provide them with lasting satisfaction but they only end up with despair and hopelessness. However, they are incapable of bringing an end to their obsession as they continue to live under pressure by the capitalist society.
It is often taken for granted that a capitalist economy involves the worship and pursuit of money. In many literary works, the given economic structure cannot be changed by an individual. In the novel “Empire of Lights,” Kim Young-ha presents a secret agent sent by the North. The spy fails to carry out an order to return to Pyongyang. The key issue is not the fact that he failed but the harsh reality that the failed infiltrator had to face in the South. Like everyone else, he also had to earn money in a capitalist South Korea, where ideological confrontations do not carry much significance any longer. In this novel, the author does not put forward the issue of ideology as the main theme. The ideological oppression and violence experienced by the protagonist are reduced as a literary scheme in order to draw attention to the almighty power of a capitalist system.
Kim Soom also recognizes the absolute influence of a given economic and societal structure in “Iron.” A parable-like narrative depicts shipyard laborers working to build a vessel of iron. But the ordinary village life is destroyed by iron and rust as the work goes on. While some even throw themselves into the smelting furnace, the shipbuilding company never unveils the much desired iron ship to the workers. Even though the company keeps despoiling the village to secure more iron for the ship, the helpless laborers are unable to stop working. The writer exploits the invisible iron ship as an allegory of the structural power that suppresses human life.
Pyeon Hye-yeong’s imaginary space is marred by corpses on the street and plague and other contagious diseases. The total isolation and devastation depicted in her novel “Ashes and the Red” make the most grotesque scene, while the characters are devoid of self-identity. Similar literary allegories of self-alienation are seen in Cheon Myeong-gwan’s “The Whale” and Park Jin-gyu’s “Suspicious Housekeepers.”
In comparison to the fantastic imagination of aforementioned works, history novels also have proliferated in the past decade. Especially, Kim Hoon’s “Song of Sword” and “Namhan Mountain Fortress” gained huge popularity nationwide, and were even produced into a television miniseries and a musical. Nevertheless, Kim’s literary works do not retain the typical features of traditional history novels. In “Song of Sword,” Admiral Yi Sun-sin of the Joseon Dynasty is depicted as a war skeptic, less the typical portrait of a general of high renown. Kim’s description of historical figures resonated with Korean readers as they found the novel as a metaphor of the political realities of 21st century Korea.
Kim Yeon-su’s two novels “Whoever You Are, How Deep Your Loneliness Is” and “The Night Sings” have brought the modern history of Korea to the fictional space. The novels deal with the democracy fighters of the 1990s and the independence movement of the 1930s under the colonial rule of Japan. The narrative does not aim to restore the past events, however. Instead, the stories are led by a key question of “Who am I?” As the stories delve into the quest for identity, historical facts turn into a question directly connected to the present-day readers.
Kim Tak-hwan also has been a prolific writer of history novels. He has demonstrated excellent story-telling skills in “Immortality,” “I, Hwang Jin-yi” and “Murder of Banggakbon,” among others. His versatility in narratives ranges from a detective story (as in “Murder of Banggakbon”) and a biography (“Lee Shim”) to a confession and memoir (“I, Hwang Jin-yi”). In addition, Kim Tak-hwan’s “Immortality” compares with Kim Hoon’s “Song of Sword” as both represent the life of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The former differentiates from the latter in the sense that it focuses more on the flow of episodes rather than the efforts to interconnect the historical facts with the present.
Stories of women continue to take up a significant portion of Korean novels in the 2000s. As patriarchal tradition loses influence in the society, male characters, especially the father figures, are often described as social underdogs. They fail to provide proper financial means to the family, wives demand divorce (in Kim Ae-ran’s “Run, Dad!”), and they even become victims of domestic violence by their female spouses (in Bae Su-ah’s “Sunday Sukiyaki Restaurant”). Women cease to be the object of desire, discarding feminine beauty demanded in the past. For women novelists Bae Su-ah, Kwon Ji-ye and Cheon Un-yeong, the rise of strong female characters is often paralleled by the collapse of conventional father figures.
Whereas the female characters in the 1990s left home and wandered, those in many of the latest novels choose to return home and create a family life. A daughter returns to her mother’s house (in Jeon Kyeong-rin’s “Mother’s House”), while Shin Kyung-sook in her bestseller “Take Care of Mother” discovers the sacrifices made by the mother for the love of family.
As divorce and remarriage widespread, deconstruction and reintegration of families also have been an important literary theme. Gong Ji-young wrote about a family life composed of a twice-divorced mother and her children of different fathers in “Home Sweet Home.” The story led by a young girl’s narrative keeps a hopeful view toward a new horizontal family system.
Outsiders ― Homosexuals, Criminals and the Dead
Korean novels between 2000 and 2010 have brought into light sexual minorities, criminals and even dead bodies as leading characters. It is the social function of literature to find back voices to such outsiders and recognize their presence in the society. Social taboos and cultural outsiders depicted en masse in Korean novels over the past decade underscore the subversive power of literature.
Cheon Un-yeong traces the psychology of a man who witnesses his girlfriend’s relationship with another woman in “The Third Breast.” The homosexual girlfriend is murdered by the male protagonist but Cheon maintains his wishes for the return of the social outcasts and sexual outsiders in the novel.
Baek Ga-heum’s “The Tomb of a Ship” describes blood-curdling crime in a small port town. The return of a criminal past the statute of limitations to his hometown results in vengeful violence and murder, a subversion of dichotomy between good and evil.
Lee Ki-ho sheds light on social outcasts by describing the socially rejected and their maladjusted behaviors. In his satirical novels “The Descent of the Holy Spirit to Choe Sun-deok” and “Good at Making Apologies,” Lee ridicules the solemnity of religion and mocks its hypocrisy.
Corpses and waste also have become the source of literary fantasies. In “Ashes and the Red,” Pyeon Hye-yeong illustrates a dismal society filled with corpses, dead animals and filthy waste. The protagonist tries to enter into a company headquarters building, which in fact is a Tower of Babel built upon deaths, plagues and human waste.
When the new millennium began, many people expected to see a stream of literary works that would reflect distinct features of the new era. An attempt to characterize the literature belonging to a certain period of time may not always satisfy such expectations.
However, it is obvious that time has changed the realities of our lives and the structure of our society. Thus the content of Korean novels also has transformed, with the emergence of new social classes and the deconstruction of the past hegemonic structure.
The controversy over the crisis of Korean literature will find a breakthrough in readers and writers who continue to read and create literary works. The life of Korean literature will last as long as there are readers who believe they can look into reality through the lens of literature. The novels, in particular, will continue to depict the realities of time ― a crucial role sustaining the potential of the genre.
[Literature and Thought (Munhak Sasang), July 2010,
published by Munhak Sasang, Inc.]