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Korean fiction at the
border of globalization
Korea had a diverse and rich tradition of novels even before its encounter with European modernism and literature. It had learned to produce various forms of paper based on China’s papermaking technology, and printed many books using woodblock printing ahead of Gutenberg’s invention of metal movable type. In addition to Confucian scriptures, large volumes of novels were printed and distributed. These novels were partly written in Chinese characters, but mostly consisted of Korean created in the 15th century. Compared to Latin America and Africa this tradition led to a different experience for Korea in its encounter with Europe and awakening to novels. When Korea was exposed to European novels through Japan, many Korean writers were surprised and focused their efforts on adapting to the new style. The influence of European novels was so significant that the newly created novels were referred to as new novels, while that of the past were termed old novels.
Korea came under Japanese colonial rule in 1910 just as its modern novels, otherwise known as new novels, began to develop. This colonial experience during the transition from a Confucian world view to modern individualism contributes to the unique characteristics of Korean novels. The people spent more time adapting and interpreting their lives under the modern capitalist system, and also took on the responsibility of protecting the collective identity of the community from colonial oppression. As such, there was a greater focus on the modern individual as a subject, along with the relationship formed between the individual and society. Against this backdrop, the notion of art for life’s sake was favoured over art for art’s sake. This tradition of Korean novels remained unchanged even after Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945. After the division into North and South Korea and under the respective influence of the Soviet Union and the United States the ideological conflict between the two countries grew, each adhering respectively to communism and capitalism. Notable works were produced in South Korea as writers were willing to fight against military dictatorship, making sacrifices to protect individual freedom and national identity. However, North Korea imposed stricter censorship and control.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, North Korea faced a severe economic crisis and many North Koreans escaped to China. Some managed to enter South Korea, while others fought to get by in China and other foreign lands. The new struggle was to survive amidst the globalization of neoliberalism that went against the conventions of a country divided after World War II by the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism. The historical setting of Jeong Do-sang’s work, introduced below, is around this time. It is written from the viewpoint of a child, whose mother died while escaping to South Korea, and ends tragically as the boy himself dies after crossing through China and Mongolia. Jeong Do-sang, who began writing in the mid-1980s, is well known for his portrayal of people’s suffering caused by the North-South divide.
After Korea’s economy began to grow in the 1990s, people from neighbouring countries entered Korea in search of jobs. Koreans became exposed to other cultures and races in their daily lives. These foreigners provided a new perspective to Koreans, who had stronger ethnocentric tendencies compared to other countries. Along with globalized capitalism, it was no longer possible for Korea to view the world from within its borders. This feature introduces fiction by Jeon Seong-tae, who touches upon the problem of co-existing with foreigners in light of Koreans’ ethnocentric tendencies. With foreigners from neighbouring countries entering Korea for jobs, Korea now has the upper hand and should not be seen as a victim of colonial rule and division. Jeon Seong-tae’s works clearly reflect this inner turmoil. Regarded as one of the major Korean writers, Jeon Seong-tae is not afraid of facing reality.
Korea stands in an ambivalent position as the victim of colonial rule and division, and at the same time, an assailant who reigns over migrant workers. Korean writers who deal with this issue can be seen as upholding the tradition of social imagination of post-modern Korean fiction-writing.