The Korean Wave: 25 stories that define Korea’s dramatic history

While Squid Game, Parasite and BTS have dominated Korea’s pop culture revolution, books and stories are now having their own moment, writes James Balmont.

This year, as Netflix pledged a $2.5bn investment in Korean visual media in the same month that Blackpink’s headline performance at Coachella marked a milestone in the festival’s representation of Asian music, it would appear that South Korea’s pop culture revolution is in full force. But just as the V&A’s Hallyu! The Korean Wave exhibition – which has dazzled UK visitors with ephemera from Parasite and Squid Game and rooms blasting BTS since September 2022 – comes to a close, another branch of K-culture, less concerned with audio-visual spectacle, is bringing the country’s fascinating history into greater focus.

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This spring, Penguin Classics published their first collection of modern Korean literature in the UK – a short story anthology that brings the country’s dramatic 20th Century to life. The history witnessed via The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories

, edited and curated by Bruce Fulton, parallels that observed in one of the great works of contemporary Korean long-form fiction: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (season two of Apple TV+’s acclaimed adaptation wraps filming this month). With the Booker International Prize continuing to spotlight Korean storytelling in 2023, an exciting new chapter of the K-culture revolution is unfolding. And as Fulton and Lee tell BBC Culture, it’s one that fosters a greater understanding of the country’s development over the past century.

One need only to skim the two-page historical chronology that opens the Penguin volume to get an understanding of the extensive disruption the country has endured in the 20th Century. Across 25 short stories and 80 years of writing, the book spans the country’s devastating colonisation by Japan in 1910; the bifurcation of the country into North and South ahead of the Korean War in 1950; the coup d’état of 1961 that prefaced decades of military dictatorships in the South; and the rapid and painful modernisation process that led to the beginning of democratisation in 1987. Today, South Korea is the 10th largest economy in the world – a metamorphosis few countries can claim to have replicated during the same period.

‘Hope and humour’

Given the context, it should be no surprise that, in the words of professor of Korean literature Kwon Youngmin in the book’s introduction, “Korean fiction has earned a reputation, to an extent deserved, of being gloomy and depressing”. But what the collection does so well – via diverse tales of peddlers and sex workers, battlefield casualties and lonely wanderers searching for connection – is to dismantle this limited perspective with tales of hope, humour and perseverance, illustrating a profound depth to the story of Korea’s transformation.

Ch’ae Manshik’s A Man Called Hŭngbo was written in 1939 during the Sino-Japanese war, when the exigencies of Korea’s colonisers were taking a toll on the populace. Here, a simple, kind-hearted caretaker inherits a half-eaten bento box from his school’s Japanese principal, and endeavours to bring it home for his crippled daughter. Despite good intentions, he’s thwarted by his neighbour – and kicked out of his home by his wife. “Any story written during the colonial period could be understood as bleak,” says Fulton – an academic and translator involved with Korean studies for over 40 years. “But all literature published in Korean during the colonial period is grounds for optimism. It’s a reflection of the belief of many writers that someday their writing would endure, even though the future was uncertain.” Though the context is specific to Korea, Ch’ae’s story is relatable: “People can still smile, and feel compassion for others,” says Fulton. “And that the story ends with ‘good ol’ Mister Hyŏn’ awaiting sunlight so that he can make amends with his daughter is perhaps the cliché of the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The recently published Penguin Book of Short Stories represents an exciting new chapter of the K-culture revolution (Credit: Penguin Random House)

The recently published Penguin Book of Short Stories represents an exciting new chapter of the K-culture revolution (Credit: Penguin Random House)

Perseverance is as vivid an undercurrent in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko – which, across 79 years and four generations of one family, charts the same vivid history as the Penguin collection. It’s the sweeping story of Sunja – a peasant girl born in Japan-occupied Korea in the early century – who later endures poverty and discrimination in the ghettos of Osaka as she witnesses Japan’s destruction at the end of World War Two. As her children grow up in Japan, experiencing fresh discrimination as adults, she learns of starvation, sickness and bloodshed in her motherland as the country is ravaged by the Korean War.

This history’s resonance is profound for the author: “My father was a war refugee,” she tells BBC Culture. “He lost his entire family in 1950 when he was a 16-year-old boy. He and his elder brother were sent down to the South on a US refugee warship, thinking he would come back to his homeland in a few days. But he never saw his mother or his sister or his home ever again.” Today, reverberations of the Korean War are witnessed everywhere – because though an armistice has been signed, the war has not truly ended. “That’s why every man in South and North Korea is required to have mandatory military service,” Lee says. “They’re still preparing to fight one another.”

Persistence and survival

Elsewhere in The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories, an entire section is dedicated to “Hell Chosun” – a concept defined as the discontent of a generation of young people who obtained university education only to discover a paucity of jobs and inadequate salaries available thereafter. With this in mind, P’yŏn Hyeyŏng’s The First Anniversary (2006) feels resonant: it’s the story of a delivery person in a city marked by constant construction and renovation, who yearns to leave his repetitive job but cannot find anyone to replace him – for the towering residential buildings and half-basement apartments (recalling Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite) seem devoid of actual residents.

The V&A's Korean Wave exhibition has dazzled UK visitors with ephemera from pop-culture exports like Squid Game, BTS and Parasite (Credit: Alamy)

The V&A’s Korean Wave exhibition has dazzled UK visitors with ephemera from pop-culture exports like Squid Game, BTS and Parasite (Credit: Alamy)

The story offers a reflection of the rapid transformation of the urban landscape that dates back to the Park Chung-hee dictatorship – which catalysed the South’s evolution from an agrarian to industrial society. But the endless renovation, darkness, and desolation, says Fulton, also evokes a strong theme of – literally “absence”. “The residents of the buildings have vacated,” he observes, a reminder of “all the families separated during the Korean War; or by the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945; and historical outrages like the loss of over 200,000 girls to so-called ‘comfort stations’ in Manchuria during the late Pacific War.” (The latter is alluded to repeatedly in Pachinko via warnings of girls coerced to China with the suggestion of “good factory work”.) Such dark moments are among the building blocks of the country’s development – the sluggish turning of a 500ft Ferris wheel in The First Anniversary is a metaphor for the slow march onwards.

This enduring grind is powerfully embodied in the opening sentence of Pachinko: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Despite domination, imperialism and colonialism, says Lee, the ordinary people persisted and survived. “They didn’t just give up,” she says. “They thought ‘How do I take care of my family?’. They got up and went to work.” She concludes: “What I love most is that the people try and find victory in a history in which they have been humiliated. It’s a reclamation of their dignity.”

These works are far from alone in mining Korea’s history for literary success in 2023. In April, the International Booker Prize announced a South Korean novel on the shortlist for the second year in a row; indeed, five South Korean works have made the longlist since Han Kang’s The Vegetarianthe tale of a dutiful wife whose vegetarianism invites misogyny and violence – won the prize in 2016.

Hwang Sok-yong's Mater 2-10, released in May, spans the Japanese colonial era through to the 21st Century (Credit: Scribe)

Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10, released in May, spans the Japanese colonial era through to the 21st Century (Credit: Scribe)

Epic adventure-satire Whale, written by Cheon Myeong-kwan in 2003 and translated into English by Kim Chi-young, was the South Korean nominee this year (it follows Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny – an anthology of surreal and twisted tales addressing Korea’s patriarchal, capitalist society, nominated in 2022). Like Pachinko, Whale is a multi-generational tale that sheds new light on Korea’s societal transformation in the years following the Korean War; it follows an enterprising woman who leaves home to trade foodstuffs in a port city – who later becomes obsessed with the construction of a cinema shaped like a whale in a fast-modernising rural village. The Booker 2023 judges called it: “a rollercoaster adventure through Korean history and culture… full of magic and humour, profound darkness and struggle, terrible violence and prejudice.”

Other notable recent Korean novels include Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 – about a woman who strives to defy restrictive gender roles across her childhood, marriage and motherhood between 1982 and 2016. It sold more than one million copies upon publication in South Korea in 2016, and was seen as a catalyst for the country’s #MeToo movement. Equally compelling is the latest by Hwang Sok-yong – who, in 1993, was sentenced to seven years in prison after travelling to the North to promote exchange between artists. Mater 2-10, released on 11 May in the UK, centres on three generations of a family of rail workers – spanning the Japanese colonial era through to the country’s liberation, right up to the 21st Century.

That such rich, nuanced works have taken a backseat to the status quo-rupturing efforts of dynamic filmmakers and pop stars until now is, perhaps, in line with the wider course of Korean cultural history. Fulton points out that “the oral and performance tradition [of Korean storytelling] developed back in the old kingdoms… there was no Korean alphabet until the 1400s”; and that the written word was largely the providence of “a very few educated men” right up until the modern era. But as this flood of literature (from men and women of all backgrounds) is increasingly acclaimed and available in the West today, perhaps the Korean wave might be turning a page – even as it continues to look to the past.