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The Best Korean Novels

recommended by Bruce Fulton

The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories ed. Bruce Fulton


The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories
ed. Bruce Fulton


Korean popular culture—television, film, and music—has been sweeping the globe. But Korean literature is darker and more serious than you might assume, given the fun and irreverent nature of 'K-pop.' Here, the respected translator and academic Bruce Fulton highlights five key Korean novels that offer insight into the culture and troubled history of the Korean peninsula.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories ed. Bruce Fulton


The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories
ed. Bruce Fulton

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I want to begin by thanking you for selecting five of the best Korean novels. Could you tell us about the criteria you used to compile your reading list?

Over the decades, Ju-Chan Fulton and I have developed a gut instinct for what we believe to be worthwhile and meaningful. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious. But for the last fifteen or twenty years, we’ve found ourselves addressing a rather common complaint among readers of Korean fiction, which is that much of what they read is dark and depressing and gloomy. So we decided in our translations to attempt to illustrate why that should be the case. This has led us to an increasing interest in literature that deals with trauma, with loss, with wartime, colonisation, and in which native Korean spirituality is called upon to effect healing and closure.

I guess, if you were to choose a single criterion, you might describe it as ‘translations that matter.’ We want our translations to make a difference. And at a time when Korean popular culture is arguably driving popular culture worldwide, we tend to forget that much of the oral and performative elements of Korean popular culture derive from the Korean oral tradition, reflected in Korean literature from its earliest days. So, yes, another criterion would be simply to maintain visibility for Korean literature in the greater fabric of Korean culture and tradition.

Yes, as you say, interest in Korean culture has blossomed in the West in recent years. That must be quite satisfying for someone like you, who has worked so hard for more than forty years to bring Korean literature to a wider audience.

We are ever hopeful. But we also have to remember that the tradition of Korean recorded literature—that is, apart from oral literature—continues to be an elite, conservative, and patriarchal tradition. The reason for this is that, until about 500 years ago, Korea did not have a script of its own. So for those who were literate on the Korean Peninsula, the literary language was classical Chinese.

How did Koreans go about learning the Chinese literary tradition? Well, first of all, you had to be male. The goal of becoming literate was to pass the government civil service examination in traditional Korea—an exam that was only open to men. So any self-respecting clan would sequester the oldest son, who would devote their childhood to mastering classical Chinese. If you think about the percentage of the population that could afford to do that in a traditional agrarian society, it’s infinitely small. Modern Korea, to a large extent, inherited this elevated status of recorded literature, whether prose or poetry, and this can prove intimidating to everyday readers. Only recently have women writers beaten down the doors.

“The tradition of Korean recorded literature continues to be an elite, conservative, and patriarchal tradition”

There’s a strictly defined entrance to writerhood in Korea. But in the last ten years or so, we’ve begun to see more diversity—what we might think of as ‘genre fiction.’ But very few Korean fiction writers have achieved financial success. The ones who have usually write multi-volume novels that are serialised in newspapers or literary journals. The author of one of the books I’ve selected recently confided that she’s happy if she sells more than 3000 copies of a story collection or novel in the Korean edition. And surveys suggest that Korean readers spend less than an hour a week on print materials. Just about everything is accessed on smartphones. So I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Korean literature, especially fiction, to find as much recognition as music and food. But that won’t stop us trying.

Yes, you recently released The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories, the first work of Korean literature to be published by Penguin World Classics in the UK.

Yes, Penguin US has published a few Korean volumes in the last twenty years or so, but this is a first for Penguin UK. When people abroad think of Korean literature these days, they tend to think of books like The Vegetarian, an English version of a work by Han Kang—which, as a recipient of a major English literary prize, got everyone very, very excited. But what’s wonderful about the Penguin anthology is that finally we have a sampling of some of the stories that have brought modern Korean fiction to a very high point of development, the short story form.

This needs a little bit of context; back in the old days, fiction was not divided by genre or by length. It was simply fiction. The works that were recorded could be a few pages long, or they might be hundreds of volumes long—usually family histories, which were very popular among court women during Chosŏn, the most recent kingdom. But with the start of the modern period in Korea, which we usually date to the late 1800s and early 1900s, we see the western-style short story coming into Korea by way of Japan. Russian short fiction was very popular in Japanese translation in colonial Korea.

Another anomaly in world colonial history: Korea was the first sovereign nation to be colonised by a non-western power: Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and their occupation of the Korean Peninsula lasted until 1945. During those 35 years, young Koreans interested in literature were reading Western literature in Japanese translation, because Japanese was the language of instruction in the colonial Korean educational system. But it was the short story that proved especially engaging to the young Korean literati, and quite quickly Korea developed a very solid tradition of short fiction.

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The Penguin anthology contains 25 stories,  one or two of them verging on novella length, as well as an excerpt from a novel. What is historic about this excerpt is that this is not a South Korean novel, but a North Korean one.

As you may know, North Korea (‘The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’) and South Korea (‘The Republic of Korea’) are technically still at war because no formal peace treaty was signed at the time of the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953. There has since been very little contact between the people of the two nations and we are getting to know something about North Korean literature only recently, through memoirs by defectors. But the novel Ju-Chan and I are translating is by a writer who grew up in North Korea and attended university there, fulfilled his obligatory military service, and then wrote a novel about an iconic Korean entertaining woman called Hwang Chini.

This is one of the Korean novels you’ve chosen to recommend—also called Hwang Chini—by Hong Sŏkchung, which is in the process of being translated by yourself and Ju-Chan. An excerpt is available on the Asymptote Journal site. 

Hwang Chini is an iconic figure in Korean tradition, and it is notable that the author—instead of writing a novel of socialist realism about present-day life in Korea—chose to go back 500 years or so. I think this is what made it possible for this novel to be published in North Korea. The writing is superb. And we should remember that the author’s grandfather was Hong Myŏnghǔi, also a writer of note. The grandson has obviously inherited the grandfather’s gift for storytelling.

He was the first North Korean writer to win South Korea’s Manhae Literary Prize. Should we consider literature from North and South Korea as being one and the same?

Well, originally, of course, yes, before South Korea and North Korea became distinct geopolitical entities in 1948. But the emphasis of literature in North Korea necessarily had to connect with the raison d’être of the North Korean leadership, which has always claimed patriotic background. Kim Il Sung, the original leader, was supposedly an anti-Japanese activist. After 1945, the division of the Korean Peninsula was effected as a temporary measure to take care of the surrender of demilitarised Japanese forces that ran the Korean Peninsula. Soviet military advisors entered the North and the US established a military government in the South. There in the South, writers seized on a tendency to reflect contemporary realities in their writing—that’s been omnipresent in South Korean literature from the beginning—but in the North it was necessary to help the Kim family solidify their rule. So from the 1960s, we see a standard, almost formulaic, North Korean plot structure and characterisation.

The second Korean novel you wanted to recommend was Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest, translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West. Why have you selected it?

Earlier I mentioned that our number-one criterion for translating a novel was that it should somehow make a difference. But we couple that with what we believe to be an appropriate literary style for the subject matter. On the surface, this book would be about a disturbing aspect of civil war—a massacre, or what you might call an ideological cleansing. This novel is based on a historical incident that took place about two months after the June 1950 outbreak of the war.

This incident took place in a small city in present-day North Korea. North Korean historians blamed it on United Nations forces pushing north—those UN forces were primarily US military. But subsequent research revealed that the UN forces had nothing to do with those killings; their advance was used as pretext by hardline communists to purge those who were found to be lacking in commitment to the People’s Army and to the ‘Dear Leader.’ So, a disturbing but not uncommon historical incident.

So how does the author handle this material? Simple historical description is going to be of little use, because to anyone with any first-hand experience of the atrocities of the Korean War this will be nothing new. It will be a sad reminder of tragedy and possibly personal loss. So Hwang resorted to native Korean spirituality; this is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the practitioner of Korean spirituality, the mudang—often called a shaman in the west, although I don’t like that term— is by definition female. So, in a society with a traditional, patriarchal class system, it’s significant that practitioners of native spirituality are female.

“Until about 500 years ago, Korea did not have a script of its own. For those who were literate, the literary language was classical Chinese”

One of the most important functions of a mudang is to mediate between those of us still here on Earth and the souls of those who have died prematurely or unnaturally, who are thought to be floating up there somewhere, unable to journey to their final resting place. The practitioner will perform a ritual in which she tells a story, and part of that story involves the voices of the souls who are floating around there; the mudang will channel those voices as part of her performance. This has long been an aspect of Korean culture. But what Hwang Sok-Yong has done is to allow the protagonist, who was separated from his brother in North Korea, to find out exactly what happened in this small city, to effect reconciliation with his brother and with those whom he left behind.

The way this happens is that somehow he begins to hear these voices. There’s no mudang; instead the author is playing the role of mudang by allowing the protagonist—and us the readers—to hear the stories of the people who were massacred. The stories are not woeful, emotive, hysterical, they are told in a very calm, factual way. There was animosity, a misunderstanding. The UN soldiers were not involved. And once the various souls are satisfied their stories have been heard—they gather together and perform a kind of triumphant finale—they can journey to the afterlife.

That’s what makes this novel really brilliant. We might say that not only do the victims of wartime atrocities have a chance to reclaim their identity, but the very practice of being spiritual in Korea is once again reclaiming a fundamental place in Korean literary expression.

That sounds like a very interesting text for our readers, a novel that offers a great deal of insight into both Korean culture and history. Shall we turn our attention to Cho Se-hǔi’s’s The Dwarf next? It was published in 1978 and was a bestseller in Korea. It functions as a series of linked short stories. Can you tell us more?

The early 1970s—more than halfway through the Park Chung Hee dictatorship—was a time when a writer could get in trouble for criticising the military dictatorship and restrictions on civil liberties. Several notable Korean poets and fiction writers served time in jail during the Park Chung Hee era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cho Sehǔi had something very important that he wanted to talk about, the ‘little people’ who made possible Korea’s rapid journey from poverty. You have to remember that it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that South Korea’s economy caught up with the North Korean economy. He wanted to showcase the factory workers, male and female, who helped this monumental change in South Korea.

“It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that South Korea’s economy caught up with the North Korean economy”

He wanted these stories, which he gathered into a book, to be read by the widest possible readership. And to stay out of jail, he adopted a very terse, concise, syntactically simple writing style. Anyone with a middle school education could read this book. But as you might expect, it’s heavily overlaid with irony. The committed reader will find something of interest.

So it’s not just about the workers, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s also about the people at the very top, the people who own these conglomerates in a variety of industries—tech, textiles, and so forth. Also playing a prominent role in these twelve or thirteen stories is the emerging middle class, which we see identified with some of the first generation of consumer goods.

When you say ‘little people,’ you are talking both literally and figuratively.

Like most writers, Cho Sehǔi is careful in the words he uses. Presumably his focus on the dwarf represents disproportionate development. If he’s talking about the Korean economy—and most of us agree that this was his goal— Cho Sehǔi is asking us to think about the course of its development, which was distorted during this time.

He first published these stories in literary journals, from 1976 to 1978. Then in 1978 he went to perhaps the most prestigious publisher of literary fiction in South Korea at the time, and the book went through more than a hundred printings. Practically everybody who went to school in South Korea has read this book, or at least knows of it.

He wanted readers to understand what made possible the South Korean ‘economic miracle,’ a phrase often heard when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. So we see some of the stories describing the working conditions of the factories in explicit detail. It reminds me of my mother—she grew up in the years leading up to World War Two and worked for the Boeing aeroplane manufacturing company during the war. In order to navigate the huge buildings in which these planes were built, she and the other women workers had to wear roller skates. Cho Sehǔi adds these sorts of telling details that give readers a sense of exactly the responsibilities that these factory workers had.

In a couple of the stories involving this emerging middle class, we see Shinae, a mother, protecting the dwarf as he’s being beaten by a man who owns a plumbing shop.  Shinae comes out with a kitchen knife and slashes the thug across the arm. These examples of cross-class solidarity occur so infrequently that I think this is one of the most triumphant moments in modern Korean fiction.

When we translated this novel, we felt it was the most important single-volume work of literary fiction in modern Korea.

Thank you for putting it on our radar, I think a lot of our readers will be interested. But for now, let’s move onto the fourth Korean novel you’d like to recommend, Kim Soom’s One Left.

One of the reasons that some people find Korean fiction dark and depressing is that it covers some of the worst episodes of modern Korean history. Many people still have very negative feelings about the Japanese colonial period. Millions of family members remain divided by the Korean War. There were many who were incarcerated, and in some cases, tortured, during almost thirty years of military dictatorship.

What is significant about books like One Left is that the author is retrieving a significant population of Koreans from historical oblivion, and—once again—giving them voices, like Hwang Sok-Yong did in The Guest.

Believe it or not, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 Korean girls were taken from their ancestral villages after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. They were physically taken, or manipulated by promises of a good job in a factory somewhere, where they could send money back to their families and their villages. Most of them ended up on trains that delivered them to so-called ‘comfort stations’ in Manchuria, where they were forced to sexually service as many as fifty Japanese soldiers a day. Not until 1991, 46 years after World War Two ended, did the first of the survivors go public. Only a small percentage ever made their way back to Korea.

For these girls inducted into sexual servitude, the euphemism ‘comfort women’ came into being; they’re more properly understood as sex slaves, women in indentured sexual servitude.

Not until five years ago was there a novel that focused exclusively on these women. Kim Soom researched all of the survivors’ commentaries, testimonies, newspaper articles, memoir-type essays. At least one of the women she cited gave testimony before the US Congress. And so all the detail in the book is based on historical evidence.

So, historically, the account is accurate, but Kim Soon has placed the story in the present, in a neighbourhood undergoing redevelopment. Most of the residents have moved out in advance of the demolition. The narrator is an unregistered former comfort woman, and most of the novel consists of flashbacks of the protagonist. In the present, she’s keeping count of the surviving women. As the novel begins,  there are more than 50, but by the end there is only ‘one left,’ the title of our translation. The Korean title is, literally, ‘One Person.’

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At the end of the novel the protagonist decides to go to the university hospital where the last woman lies close to death, to tell her that when she’s gone, there will still be one left: she herself.

On the way to the hospital, she remembers a time when she and some of the other girls from the Manchurian comfort station were on their way into a nearby town to serve the soldiers stationed there, and they had to cross a river in a boat. On their way back, the boat encountered rough water, and the protagonist was thrown overboard. She thought she was done for, but felt arms taking hold of her, and heard voices calling out her given name, a name she had not used or even thought of for seventy years. So in this way she is reclaiming her identity, the name she was given at birth, reclaiming those twelve or thirteen years spent in her childhood village. And by doing so she stands for each one of the 200,000-plus girls who were taken away. That’s the meaning of Kim Soom’s ‘One Person.’

Not only has the Japanese Government not issued a formal apology to those victims of sexual servitude, but the Republic of Korea has not either. There are many who perhaps out of a sense of collective guilt would probably be happy to see those women remain in the shadows, remain buried. But by returning these individuals to historical memory, we can validate their voices and move on with awareness, and a will to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I think that brings us, finally, to the final Korean novel we’re going to be discussing, Gong Ji-young’s  Togani. The title translates as ‘The Crucible’; it was first published in Korea in 2009 and your and Ju-Chan’s translation was released from the University of Hawai’i Press in spring 2023.

Once again we have a combination of compelling subject matter and an appropriate literary style for the subject matter. The novel is based on a real case of what you might call a sexual reign of terror at an institute for special needs children in South Korea. The victims were primarily hearing- and speech-impaired children, some of whom also had psychological disabilities. The perpetrators were twin brothers, sons of the Christian minister who founded the ironically named ‘Home of Benevolence.’

The protagonist of the novel ends up at this school as a kind of temporary teacher by happenstance. On his very first day at the school he hears a girl screaming from the women’s bathroom.

Gong Ji-young handles this potentially explosive subject matter by writing what you might call a novel of manners—a novel in which we see different elements of society interacting. Readers interested in how Korean society functions will find it interesting for that reason. We see, occasionally in the form of amusing anecdotes and dialogues, how the upper crust of this provincial city comes together to shield the twins when this pattern of sexual abuse becomes public.

But there are a couple of elements to the narrative that are rare in modern Korean fiction. There’s a prolonged courtroom scene… Now, I know that many readers in the UK are happy with police procedurals—The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Vera… we’re big fans of the Midsomer Murders over here and have recently become addicted to the American Law and Order show.

In the climactic courtroom scene, one of the children is asked to identify which of the two identical twins assaulted her. In other words, the defense counsel is asking how she could know which of the identical twins was the perpetrator. The girl thinks about this, and signs a request to the judge: may she examine them closely? It’s granted. So she goes up to the two twins very closely and begins signing to them, and one of the men’s faces turns red. She points to him and says: he’s the one.

This is very unusual. It’s an example of how, little by little, we see what we might think of as genre elements coming into Korean literary fiction. There are also two long letters, which of course reminds us of the epistolary novel—novels that take place primarily through letters. I think that’s what makes this novel so significant as a work of literature. It was also made into a film which was a huge success and returned the novel to bestseller lists.

Many Korean citizens became outraged at the light sentences given to the two twins—six-month suspended sentences, with no jail time. So many Koreans demonstrated against this injustice that the Korean National Assembly passed a series of laws to strengthen the penalties. These laws did away with the statute of limitations on crimes involving the sexual abuse of minors, and relaxed the stringent requirements governing admissible evidence.

As a result, they came to be known as the Togani Laws, after the title of the novel. So here we see not only literary success but the power of literature to effect change in national law.

That’s a remarkable story. Thank you for sharing that. I think it brings us to the close of our discussion of these five Korean novels that everyone should read. But is there anything else you’d like to add, in terms of advice for those reading Korean fiction for the first time?

Yes. Some of what you will read may be disturbing. It’s dark. But if you are able to exercise empathy, to hear what’s being said, to feel what’s being felt, perhaps you will find some commonalities with your life.

What you read won’t necessarily be cheerful, but the way the authors treat the material leaves us with hope by shedding light on places that have gone dark to the detriment of an understanding of, and compassion for, what our fellow citizens have experienced.


Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

July 7, 2023

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Bruce Fulton

Bruce Fulton

Bruce Fulton is the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary at the University of British Columbia. He is the co-translator, with Ju-Chan Fulton, of numerous works of modern Korean fiction, most recently Togani; recipient of a Manhae Grand Prize in Literature; and editor of The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories.

Bruce Fulton

Bruce Fulton

Bruce Fulton is the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary at the University of British Columbia. He is the co-translator, with Ju-Chan Fulton, of numerous works of modern Korean fiction, most recently Togani; recipient of a Manhae Grand Prize in Literature; and editor of The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories.