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PRESENTOR: Jizelle N Salvador. A Short History of Modern Korean Literature. A so-called "Brick"-newspaper.

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a so called brick newspaper
A so-called "Brick"-newspaper

The most serious issue for censors were related to 1) criticism of the emperor, 2) advocating class warfare, 3) revealing military information, or 4) criticism of the Government General.Of course a cat-and-mouse game could be played with these censorship rules.

the magazines white tide ruins and genesis
The magazines White Tide, Ruins and Genesis

The magazines White Tide (Baekcho, 1920) and Ruins (P’yehŏ, 1920) were specifically set up for publishing “pure” literature, with the aim of making literature without a political or social reform ideological message, in reaction to the heavily didactic tone of earlier “enlightment” novels.

yi b ms n 1920 1981
Yi Bŏmsŏn (1920-1981)

The story poignantly depicts the hopeless social situation directly after the Korean War of many Koreans. Soldiers returning from the army found themselves without jobs, and even if a job could be found, it was hard to make ends meet. Of all places, the “Liberation Village” in which the story is set was one of the dreariest places of all.

the movie poster of aimless bullet
The movie poster of Aimless Bullet

The movie that was made out of the story is on top of my favorite Korean movie list, probably mainly because of my interest in 1940s/1950s Korea and the impression it gives of the hopelessness that many people living in post-war (South) Korean society felt

poet kim chi ha and the editors of sasangkye on trial
Poet Kim Chi-ha and the editors of Sasangkye on trial

This is how Kim Chi-ha’s (기지하 1941-) narrative poem The Five Banditskicks off and never pauses in its humour and sharp criticism of the elite. It is well known what happened next after the poem got published in the May issue of Sasangkye in 1970: Kim was arrested and imprisoned along with the editors of Sasangkye magazine on charges of having violated the infamous anti-communist law. The magazine was forced to close down.

cover of a poetry collection including the five bandits
Cover of a poetry collection including The Five Bandits

The poem is interlaced with many cultural and social references. The title itself, for example, refers to the “Five Eulsa Traitors“(을사오적) who signed the 1905 treaty with Japan turning Korea into a colony. By making use of narrative strategies that are commonly used by shamans in their songs (with its many onomatopoeia) the poem becomes a rip-roaring read. For (English) translators it is really hard to convey all the references and sounds and keep the original speedy reading and meaning intact.

hwang sun won
Hwang Sun-won

By far the most famous short story in Korean literature is Shower (소나기Sonagi, 1952) written by Hwang Sun-wŏn (1915-2000).For many Koreans it is the most representative story for portraying the sensibilities that are unique to Korean culture.All schoolchildren are raised with this story since it has been part of the required curriculum for a long time.It is a story of two young people on the verge of falling in love


Cover of the first edition of the war poem collection Together with the Foot Soldiers by Yu Ch’ihwan (1951) showing the writer as a soldier with a pen as its weapon

The pen which we carry to fight should, like grenades, field artillery, flame throwers and the atomic bomb, […] become a new weapon.

the scarred face of ch a seungwon in into the fire who in reality is regarded as very handsome
The scarred face of Ch´aSeungwon in Into the Fire (who in reality is regarded as very handsome)

The North Korean officers and politicians appearing in Kim Song’s story are generally depicted as cruel, murderous and inhuman, and are frequently associated with creatures that have negative connotations, such as devils, wolves and vermin.

cover of the anti communist comic book kim il sung s secret bedroom showing a lustful kim il sung
Cover of the anti-communist comic book Kim Il Sung's Secret Bedroom showing a lustful Kim Il Sung

After the Korean War, the animalistic sexual lust of the enemy seems to have remained a popular theme in anti-communist literature as can be seen

Cover of the 1949 magazine HaedongKongnon (Korean Debates) containing ChŏngUnsam’s poem ‘In a Moonlit Night’

ChŏngUnsam (born 1925 – died January 8, 1953) had published his first few romantic poems in Whiteclothed People (白民) magazine in 1949 and also was a promising new poet on the literary scene. During the war he had fled to Pusan, where he obtained a job as a teacher at Sukmyŏng Girls High School.

the book cover of the mugunghwa blossoms
The book cover of The Mugunghwa Blossoms

Journalist KwŏnSunbŏm is asked by a prosecutor friend to investigate the mysterious death of a famous nuclear scientist called Yi Yonghu. In 1978 this scientist got into a car accident, while he was working together with president Park Chunghee on forming a nuclear program.

the movie poster of the 1995 film the mugunghwa blossoms
The movie poster of the 1995 film The Mugunghwa Blossoms

The story itself was based on the life of scientist Yi Hwiso who indeed died because of a car accident in 1977. A huge debate arose between the writer and family members of Yi Hwiso on the way his life was depicted in the book.

yi kwangsu in 1941
Yi Kwangsu in 1941

His vision on Korea’s literature was expressed in an article entitled “What is Literature?” In it he says that “the spirit of the nation that has been transmitted from the time of our ancestors…will be the center of literature.”

cover of yi kwangsu s most famous novel the heartless
Cover of Yi Kwangsu's most famous novel The Heartless

The Heartless was serialized in the MaeilShinbo (매일신보) newspaper beginning January 1, 1917, and was an immediate sensation. People walked for miles to get their daily copy. The story itself is about a love triangle between the schoolteacher Yi Hyŏngshik and two women:

cover of the korean writer s league magazine munhak literature
Cover of the Korean Writer's League magazine Munhak (Literature)

It was not long before Yu found himself on an American government blacklist. The reciting of South of the 38th Parallel (38이남) on the 29th of August 1946 at a YMCA meeting, and especially the huge response he got from the 100.000 audience members after reciting his most famous poem For whom is our youthful heart filled? (누구를위한벅차는우리의젊음이냐?) at Dongdaemun Stadium on the 1st of September 1946, were the last straw for the southern government.

cover of yu chin o s anthology ch ang 1948 window
Cover of Yu Chin-o's anthology Ch'ang (1948, Window)

After his release the literary world in the south had changed dramatically. Leftist writer organizations were banned and many leftist writers including the above-mentioned ImHwa and Oh Chang-hwan had fled north. In February 1949 Yu Chin-o became a partisan in the Chirisan mountains, but was taken prisoner by the South Korean army at the end of March.

the covers of the tale of the patriotic wife left and the council of birds and beasts top right
The covers of the Tale of the Patriotic Wife (left) and the Council of Birds and Beasts (top right)

This is just one such opinions appearing in the papers, with many others vehemently promoting one of the other scripts. Of course in hindsight the opinion of in the Independent newspaper won out, but this was far from being an obvious result. In South Korean scholarship a lot of research is nowadays being done on these turn of the century discussions on Korea’s language system and make for interesting reading.

a modern publication of the y rha ilgi
A modern publication of the YŏrhaIlgi

This is why they start searching for its origins around the 18th century, seeing evidence for its first steps towards modernity in such classical works as the Hanjungnok

a children s book telling the immensely popular story of ch unhyang
A children's book telling the immensely popular story of Ch'unhyang

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century the focus was still more on the didactic aspect of literature. I will leave the discussion as to how Korean literature developed from this didactic nature towards its ‘first’ modern Korean novel for the next installments.