Korean Literature: The Black Sheep of Hallyu

Korean authors at a literary event in Russia (image: LTI Korea)

In 2020 the novel At Dusk was long-listed for the National Translation Award. Written by Hwang Sok-yong and translated by Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk joins Korean literature’s growing list of international achievements. These accomplishments have prompted murmurings of a new Hallyu trend soon to join the ranks of K-drama, K-pop, K-beauty, K-fashion, and other segments of the growing Korean brand (Hallyu refers to the Korean culture’s global spread). The peninsular country’s cultural industries have firmly infiltrated global markets, most notably through idol groups like BTS and Monsta X. However, the realm of words has so far remained outside the parameters of the K-brand. Is it finally time for Korean literature’s day in the sun?

Korean literature has grown steadily in global popularity since translations increased in the 1990s. The genre seemed poised for a major breakthrough in the English-speaking world with the success of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, which won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. Then Han Kang’s The Vegetarian brought Korean literature to the fore after it carried home the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction in 2016. Most recently Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 gained critical attention from The New York Times, The Guardian, TIME Magazine, and other media outlets after its English debut in 2020. These achievements suggest Korean literature has already made headway in global literary circles. However, supporters of the genre regretfully admit that translations have yet failed to gain public appeal comparable to authors like Haruki Murakami or Gabriel García Márquez.

At a time when Hallyu fans flock to Korean exports, why hasn’t literature achieved similar stardom to BTS or dramas like Crash Landing on You? The answer—Korean literature hardly resembles the Korea fans have come to expect.


See the source image
The Vegetarian author, Han Kang (right) and translator Deborah Smith (left) after they received the Man Booker International Literary Award (image: Korea Bizwire)

Utopia vs. Harsh Reality

The novels discussed above inhabit very different worlds from the dazzling capitalist utopia that characterizes K-culture. For example, The Vegetarian follows a woman whose body deteriorates as she tries to erase her humanity; Please Look After Mom follows the guilt-ridden memories of a family who lose their elderly mother in Seoul’s busy subway; and Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 reveals how Korean society’s deeply-rooted patriarchy and misogyny affect women’s opportunities and sense of self-worth. These subjects are a far cry from the trendy lifestyle brand cultivated by other Korean exports.

Not only do translated novels take place in the K-culture equivalent of The Twilight Zone, they also lack trend appeal. The K-brand is known for its fast-paced production—K-pop groups present new content throughout the year, fashion trends change each season, and dramas run only 16-20 episodes before new stories take their place. In contrast, literature looks to the past. The Vegetarian’s English debut occurred a full two decades after the original short story emerged in 1997. Likewise, the North Korean novel Friend by Nam-nyong Paek came out in 1988, but only received an English translation in May 2020. Even if multiple decades don’t pass before translations come out, the nature of translation, by no fault of its own, requires time before novels can hit English bookshelves.

Global fans of K-culture have come to expect trendy, visually appealing, inter-linked, and palatable products that originate from a Korean Eden, but the translation world fills few of these characteristics. Naturally, Hallyu fans would find Korean literature completely alien.

Webtoons: A Contender for K-lit?

In short, most Korean literature making its way overseas isn’t sexy enough to earn the “K” distinction. However, that doesn’t mean the written word has no place in the Hallyu universe. Alongside translated novels emerges the rapidly developing webtoon franchise. These online comics come in diverse genres with authors ranging from high school students to professional writers and illustrators. Over 67 Million monthly viewers enjoy free access to English translations through LINE Webtoon, an online platform originally launched by the Korean site, Naver.

Though not “literature” per se, few can argue against webtoons’ market potential. The colorful, weekly episodes build worlds similar to those presented by idol groups and television dramas (in fact, many webtoons themselves become dramatized), and fit snugly within the K-brand. Comics like True Beauty (Yeoshin Gangrim) have made a splash overseas, likely for this very reason. Young protagonists, K-pop idols, social media drama, school life, singing rooms, beauty and make-up, and other markers of the K-brand combine in one dynamic story on True Beauty’s colorful panels.

In the end, if it’s a battle between translated novels and online comics for the title of “K-literature,” webtoons effortlessly take the win.

The main character of True Beauty, who utilizes the power of makeup to improve her social standing. (image: Wikitree)

Why Not Cater to Demand?

With this successful formula within easy reach, why doesn’t the translation world shift its focus to trendy, bright novels, mass-produced and promptly translated for global consumption? The reason doesn’t lie in the difficulty of finding such novels, but in Korean translation’s very un-“K” friendly mission. In the end, these exports and the Hallyu Wave have very different stories to tell.

Korean authors are heavily influenced by their country’s past traumas, such as colonial occupation, the Korean War, military regimes, democratic uprisings, and the ongoing repercussions of each. Authors navigate these scars through literature, citing their duty to vindicate the ghosts of the past. As writer Lim Chulwoo, who has written on subjects like the Gwangju Uprising, expressed in an interview with Korean Literature Now (KLN), “None of us has the right to close our eyes and turn our backs on their (victims of past traumas) suffering and their destroyed lives. It’s fundamentally a matter of ethics. It is a responsibility we, as humans from a contemporary era, share regarding our neighbors—a minimum ethic essential for being human.”

This same sense of moral duty seems to urge translators to promote socially critical and deeply meaningful stories to audiences still largely uninformed on Korean issues, perhaps in hopes of creating a more balanced snapshot of Korean life. Unfortunately, the stark difference exhibited by these two exports leaves Korea with a split personality–either a pop culture utopia or Hell Choson (a term used by young people to describe the difficulties of modern Korean life). Then again, no place can boast a completely undivided mindset. After all Gwangju-born J-Hope, the BTS member who introduces himself as “your hope,” comes from the same city where thousands died on some of the most hopeless days in Korean history. However, completely sidestepping fans of the Hallyu Wave to tell these important stories loses out on Korean literature’s most promising consumers.

Marriage of K-Culture and Novels

Though some may bristle at applying the K-brand’s characteristics to such socially relevant novels, recent publications show K-culture-friendly webtoons, and the more sobering depictions of Korean life offered in novels, can coincide. For example, Banned Book Club, written by Hyun Sook Kim, Ryan Estrada, and Hyung-Ju Ko, relates the story of a college student in 1980s authoritarian Korea as she engages with protest activities. Another graphic novel, Grass by the cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, depicts the traumatic experiences of Korean girls forced into sexual slavery during The Pacific War. Both works, which have been well-received overseas, share Korea’s scarred past while keeping the important visual appeal of K-culture intact. This type of literature, neither ignoring the K-brand nor the desire to tell important stories, might have the best chance of filling a global niche.

See the source image
A comic strip from Banned Book Club depicting a protest against military dictator Chun Doo-hwan. (image: shindig.nz)

Until this great fame comes to meet Korean literature, future translations should consider how to make use of the peninsula’s lifestyle brand and stop trying to create an audience from scratch. Adopting some aspects of the established K-Wave might give it the edge it needs to win over global audiences, including Hallyu fans.

Leslie Hickman
About Leslie Hickman 6 Articles
Leslie is in her fourth semester of GSIS's Korean Studies Program. She has a background in anthropology and writes a monthly blog on personal experiences and general musings about Korea. Her interests range from youth culture to cross-border communication to religion. One of her strongest beliefs is "You deserve to be here because you ARE here," and she once knit a blanket as a Christmas present for her brother.