The Korean Literary Scene

For Korea's literary world, the most significant event this season was the Third International Symposium of Foreign Scholars and Translators of Korean Literature, held in Seoul November 19 to 22, 1996, hosted by the Korean P.E.N. As seen in the theme of the symposium, "Korean Literature within World Literature," it was inspired by a desire to make widely known the superiority and universality of Korean literature to the world. Since the wall of language and the limitation of translation and publication have been obstacles for the world to appreciate the value of Korean literature, the symposium played a crucial role in promoting the translation and overseas study of Korean literature, identifying good writers and their works, and thus bringing Korean literary works to the world's recognition. The major subjects in the symposium were "The Values of Literature," "Literature and Environment," "Characteristics of Korean Literature," "The Reality of the Translation of Korean Literature," "The Globalization of Korean Literature," and "Writers and Human Rights." Another meaningful achievement opening the way to the "Globalization of Korean Literature" was the '96 Korean Literature Seminar, held at the University of California at Los Angeles, with the theme "Korean Literature and World Literature," co-hosted by the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation and the Department of Asian Language and Literature at UCLA. Twenty-nine scholars and translators of Korean studies in the United States and four Korean writers, including Chung Hyun-jong, Kim Jung-ran, Lee Chung-joon, Choi Yoon, participated in the seminar.
Recently Korean literature has gained worldwide appeal and many works have been introduced throughout the world. In the winter of 1996, a special issue featuring Korean literature was published by Die Horen, a well-established literary magazine produced quarterly in Germany. Since first being published in 1955, Die Horen has contributed to the international interchange of literature by issuing a special number about foreign literature annually. After ten months of translation sponsored by the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation, the works of the following twenty-seven Korean writers, all of whom began their literary careers after the 1960s, appeared in the special issue. Poets: Whang Dong-kyu, Oh Kyu-chong, Ko Un, Whang Ji-woo, Kim Kwang-kyu, Kim Ji-ha, Chung Hyun-chong, Shin Kyung-rim, Lee Si-yung, Kim Hye-soon, Cho Jung-kwon. Novelists: Hyun Kil-heon, Lim Chul-woo, Oh Jung-hee, Kim Won-il, Kim Joo-yung, Lee Moon-koo, Lee Moon-yol, Hong Sung-won, Lee Chung-joon, Cho Se-hee, Dramatists: Lee Kang-bak, Ham Se-deok, Essayists: Chun Sook-hee. Critics: Kwon Yung-min, Cho Nam-hyun, Kim Byung-ik. In Central and South America, for the first time, Korean poetry was introduced. Three poems of  Oh Se-yun appeared in the December 1996 issue of vuelta, the most prestigious literary monthly magazine in Central and South America. vuelta has proudly published works written by Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass, and Daniel Bell, as well as those by many prominent South American writers.
Literary magazines have played an important role in Korean literature by exposing the works of excellent writers and, in January 1997, Hyundae Munhak and Munhak Sasang, the two most authoritative literary magazines in Korea, announced the winners of their literary prizes. The Hyundae Munhak Prize was awarded to Hong Sin-sun in poetry, 
Lee Soon-won in fiction, and Hong Jung-sun in literary criticism, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize to Kim Ji-won, a Korean novelist currently living in the United States.
A new literary magazine titled Twenty-First Century Literature was first published in February 1997. Twenty-First Century Literature aims to open new ground for the future of Korean literature by promoting serious literature against commercialized and non-literary literature and promises to transcend any individual interest or ideological position in the Korean literary world. Twenty-First Century Literature is published by Kim Jun-sung, a novelist and ex-Vice Prime Minister, while literary critic Lee Tae-dong holds the post of editor.
Since literature is part and parcel of the culture and society engendering it, literature inevitably changes along with that culture and society. In Korea's case, the onset of mass society and culture, which has allowed currents of subculture and pop culture to make inroads into the realm of literature, has led to the dissolution of the distinction between pure literature and popular literature. The phase of disintegration is, at the same time, also one of questioning and testing the possibilities of the literature from various standpoints. Yun Hyung-keun's "Dream," through various visual images borrowed from the techniques of computer graphic compositions, portrays a poet's desire to embrace life by transcending mechanical surroundings. In "Dedicated on a Cow," Chun Eun-gang  examines the pressures of new media on literature through the perspective of a computer programmer who comes to interrelate poetry and pornography in his computer games.
Despite the new trend in literature, realistic novels with social consciousness still characterized Korean fiction this season. Choi Si-han's All Beautiful Kids explores a contemporary social issue in Korea, the educational system. Choi castigates the educators who ignore students' creativity and force them to adhere to one standard. Lee Suk-bum, using the techniques of detective fiction, criticizes the distorted educational enthusiasm of Korean parents in "Winter School." Kim Won-woo's "New Face of Monogamy" describes the dissolution of marriage in Korean society, and Yu Jai-yong questions the appropriateness of monogamy in "Their Own Dream World." Both of them can be read as a reaction against conservative attitudes to the institution of marriage based on monogamy and as signs indicating how Korean society has undergone profound or radical changes in social, cultural, and family patterns.
Among many a literary news this season, the single most important one was, obviously, the completion of Soul Fire, written by Choi Myung-hee. Choi dedicated seventeen years to finish this novel about an aristocratic family in Cholla province from the late 1930s to 1943. After thorough historical research, Choi presents a vivid and accurate panorama of Korean rural life in the period. Through the depiction of rural scenes such as the ceremonies of coming of age, marriage, funeral, and ancestral worship, as well as folk ballads and dance, she recreates provincial life with authenticity.
Faced with a rapidly changing landscape, Korean literature drew a map of diversifying values, tastes, and wants this season. But, as Choi Myung-hee's Soul Fire reveals, the true vocation of a writer begins with love and enthusiasm toward humanity and literature.