Shin Kyong-rim was born in 1935 in Ch'ongju, North Ch'ungch'ong Province. He grew up in the midst of Korea's old rural culture and in later years went travelling about the country, collecting the traditional songs of the rural villages.
His literary career officially dates from the publication in 1956 in the review Munhak Yesul of three poems, including "The Reed", but for years after that he published nothing, immersing himself instead in the world of the working classes, the "Minjung", and working as a farmer, a miner, and a merchant. The experience of those years underlies much of his work as a poet. He only graduated from the English Department of Dongkuk University in 1967, when he was over thirty.
His fame as a poet dates mainly from the publication of the collection Nong-mu "Farmers' Dance" in 1973, some of the poems from which were first published in the review Ch'angjak - kwa Pip'yong in 1970, heralding his return to the literary scene.
Many of the poems in this collection are spoken by an undefined plural voice, a "we" encompassing the collective identity of the Minjung, the poor farmers, laborers, miners among whom the poet had lived. He makes himself their spokesman on the basis of no mere sympathy; he has truly been one of them, sharing their poverty and pains, their simple joys and often disappointed hopes. Echoing in Nong-mu are memories of the terrible events that occurred all over Korea in the years following Liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, and culminating in the Korean War, when political violence was rife. Later, the uncontrolled spread of industry led to a further uprooting of rural populations that had already undergone severe dislocation in the course of the war.
In a literary culture accustomed to the individualistic "I" speaker of the western romantic tradition, or the fairly unspecified voice of modern Korean lyrics, the "we" employed in Nong-mu was felt to be deeply shocking and almost offensive. This gave rise to an intense critical debate. Out of it emerged a major literary scission when the more activist among writers established their own movement, advocating social involvement, in which Shin Kyong-rim has continued to play a leading role. He has served as president of the Association of Writers of Peoples' Literature, and of the Federated Union of Korean Nationalist Artists.
His poems often express the pain and hurt of Korea's poor, not only those of remote villages but the urban poor and those marginalized in society. He uses easily accessible, rhythmic language to compose lyrical narratives that are at times close to shamanistic incantation, or at others recall the popular songs still sung in rural villages if not in Seoul.
Other volumes of his poetry include Saejae (1979), Talnomse (1985), Kananhan sarangnorae (1988), Kil (1990). Much of his work composes a loosely framed epic tale of Korean suffering, as experienced by the farmers living along the shores of the North Han River, the poet's home region, in the late 19th century, during the Japanese colonial period, and during the turmoil of the last fifty years.
No poet has so well expressed, and so humbly, the characteristic voice
of Korea's masses, both rural and urban. Shin never sentimentalizes his
subjects but rather takes the reader beyond the physical and cultural exterior
to reveal them as intensely sensitive, suffering human beings.