Korean Literature and Historical Fiction  Books 

 

With the capitulation of the Japan in August 1945 Korea did not regain freedom. Instead Korea was partitioned along the 38th parallel, with  North Korea under Soviet occupation and South Korea under US occupation and other allied states. As a result of the 1950- 1953 Korean War, When North Korea supported by the Soviet Union invaded South Korea in 1950 the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out and North Korea under the leadership of Kim Il-sung was sealed off and remained an isolated country up to the present. The US became the destination of many Koreans fleeing the uncertain political and economic situation of their home country.

South Korea

From 1953 onwards South Korea saw an enormous transformation from a rural society into an urban and industrial state. Literature in the 1970's dealt with the concerns of this rapid industrialisation, such as the neglect of farmers and the collapse of the traditional Korean value system. Until the 1980’s, Korean literature was largely unknown outside the peninsula. But with the increasing popularity of Korean film came the interest in Korean literature. Contemporary literature in South Korea deals with the daily lives of people and the consequences of the Korean War: the national division is still an important theme in Korean literature.

Everything Belongs to Us - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, February 2017

Set in Seoul in the end of the 1970’s Jisun and Namin, one woman from a rich background and the other trying her best to get out of her family’s poverty struggle to find their way during South Korea's economic miracle. But when the two young women meet the charming student Sunam their lives change forever…

The Interpreter - Suki Kim, 2003

Suzy Park is a young and lonely woman, daughter of Korean immigrants, who works as an interpreter for the New York City Court. She has two friends and a sister Grace, with whom she has no contact anymore. During a court case Suzy discovers something about her family history that will send her on a thrilling adventure. Five years before, her parents, who were hardworking greengrocers were brutally murdered in their store. Suzy's investigation into what happened with her parents and the whereabouts of her sister Grace leads her into the dangerous Korean underworld.

 

"With the small beautiful shiver of sadness. . . [Kim] speaks succinctly of memory, pain, isolation, and regret." -The New York Times Book Review

 

Suki Kim is a novelist and an investigative journalist and the only writer ever to go live undercover in North Korea to investigate and write a book from the inside. Since 2002, she has travelled to North Korea, witnessing both Kim Jong-il’s 60th birthday celebrations as well as his death in 2011.

Native Speaker - Chang-Rae Lee, 1995

Henry Park is an an American immigrant who came from Korea. Like many immigrants he feels a stranger: isolated in the country in which he lives but also from the country from which he came.

Henry is a spy for a private surveillance agency and he is assigned to tail a Korean-American city councillor, named Kwang, who is running for mayor. He finds that he has a personal affinity for Kwang and this leads Henry to questioning the fact that he is making a living by betraying his own people. In his professional and personal life Henry reaches a point where he begins to reconsider everything of significance in his existance. He questions the morality of his work and his American wife, Leila, finds him detached and cold. By meditating on his life, his upbringing in Korea and the important role of his father, he tries to understand his sorrows.

A Gesture Life - Chang Rae Lee, 2000

Franklin Hata, Korean by birth but raised in Japan is a respectable member of an suburban New York community where for more than 30 years he ran a surgical supply store. He is courteous, honest, hard working and keeps to himself.

Franklin was never married but adopted a girl from a Japanese orphanage, Sunny. In her adolescence, when Sunny rebels against her father and his exemplary behaviour with the words: “You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness", Franklin explains that his behaviour and emotional distance comes from his experiences in the past.

Gradually he tells the story of his life as a paramedical officer serving in the Japanese army in Burma and his forbidden love for a Korean comfort woman.

“… a taut, suspenseful story about love, family, and community—and the secrets we harbor. As in Native Speaker, he writes of the ways outsiders conform in order to survive and the price they pay for doing so”. - Publisher penguin Random House

 

Chang-Rae Lee won the Asian American Literary Award for this novel.

Please Look After Mom - Kyung-Sook Shin, 2010

Traveling from their home in the Korean countryside to visit their grown up children in Seoul, the 69 year old So-Nyo finds herself separated from her husband in a crowded subway station. Whilst the family desperately search for her, they discover the desires and hopes So-Nyo kept hidden all the years in the past and they are left to wonder: how well do we actually know the woman we call Mom? By relevations of the different family members they slowly paint a picture of So-Nyo as they never knew her.

 

“Intimate and hauntingly spare. . . . A raw tribute to the mysteries of motherhood.” —The New York Times Book Review

 

Please Look After Mom won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

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North Korea

North Korea's literature is shaped and controlled by the State. All works must go through censorship and must express a given amount of praise for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Il-sung himself was actually the most well known writer of this state. Outside Korea we only know the works of North Korean’s that fled their country. These ‘exile literature’ usually contains grim accounts of life in North Korea, such as Kang Chol-hwan's ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang’ (2000) and Hyok Kang's ‘This is Paradise’ (2005).

 

Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite - Suki Kim, 2015

An impressive account of the life and people between the walls of an university in North Korea

 

It is 2011 and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where Suki Kim has accepted a job teaching English. Being a foreigner and secretly making notes for this book, Suki’s life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic. She has almost no contact with the outside world, letters and emails are read by censors and she cannot phone. Over the next six months, she teaches her pupils English, but as the weeks pass, she learns how easily her students lie in their obedience to the regime.

When Kim Jong-Il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gap between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

See also Suki Kim's site and the photo's of her time in North Korea.

The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson, 2012

Pak Jun Do is the son of the master of Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. Because of his loyalty Jun Do rises in the ranks of the bureaucracy and he becomes a spy, a kidnapper and surveillance officer. He falls in love with Sun Moon, the greatest opera star ever. But eventually his role as hero of the state is turned into one of a prisoner in a labor camp. 

 

This book deals with intertwined themes of propaganda, identity and state power in North Korea. The novel was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

"An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.”—Pulitzer Prize citation

"Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love…”-Publisher Penguin Random House

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More Bestsellers and Recommended Books North and South Korea  

- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -
Pachinko - Min Jin Lee, 2017

About four generations of a Korean family, beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea to the late 1980s. Sunja, the daughter of a poor family,  ruins her family’s reputation when she becomes pregnant. Betrayed by her secret lover, Sunja finds salvation when a young minister offers to marry her and brings her to Japan to start a new life….

Korean Historical Fiction Books Min Jin Lee

Set in Seoul in the end of the 1970’s Jisun and Namin, one woman from a rich background and the other trying her best to get out of her family’s poverty struggle to find their way during South Korea's economic miracle. But when the two young women meet the charming student Sunam their lives change forever…

Bestseller Books Korea Everything Belongs to Us
Everything Belongs to Us - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, 2017
Bestseller Korean Books Han Kang The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian: A Novel - Han Kang 2016

Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But dreams of blood and cruelty torture Yeong-hye at night and onde day she decides to become a vegetarian. This decision sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home interrupting her marriage and the relations with the people she loves. 

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016

The Calligrapher's Daughter: A Novel

Set in the early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the daughter of a calligrapher, is sent to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But when the king is assassinated, the centuries-old dynasty comes to its end and Najin wants to choose her own path, despite the oppressive traditions and the political turmoil of the war and the Japanese occupation.

Korean Historical Fiction Books The Calligrapher's Daughter

Eugenia Kim 2009

Historical Fiction
When My Name Was Keoko
Linda Sue Park 2012

Sun-hee and her older brother, Tae-yul, live in Korea with their parents. Because Korea is under Japanese occupation, the children have to study Japanese and speak it at school. When World War II  breaks out the Japanese expect their Korean subjects to fight on their side. Tae-yul got enlisted in the Japanese army, whilst his uncle is suspected of aiding the Korean resistance. Sun-hee stays behind, entrusted with the life-and-death secrets of a family at war.

Korean Historical Fiction Korean Books Linda Sue Park When My Name Was Keoko
Bestseller Books Korea Forgotten Country Catherine Chung
Forgotten Country

Catherine Chung

2013

The night before Janie’s sister, Hannah, is born, her grandmother tells her a story about the past and Janie is told to keep Hannah safe. Years later, when Hannah cuts all ties with her family and disappears, Janie goes to find her. Thus begins a journey that will force her to confront the truth behind her parents’ sudden move to America twenty years earlier, and her own conflicted feelings toward Hannah.  

Drifting House - Krys Lee 2012

The stories in Drifting house narrates the circumstances of Korean immigrants in the United States and the struggle to adapt to the Western world, the traumatic memories of famine in North Korea and the reasons to leave the country. More about Krys Lee.

Bestsellers Korean Books Krys Lee The Drifting House
The Guest: A Novel - Sok-Yong Hwang 2001

Forty years after the Korean War (1950-1953) Ryu Yosop, now living in America, returns back to his native country Korea and tells us the story of the atrocities that took place in his home village. By visiting relatives and friends Ryu Yosop tries to come to terms with his past and with the role of his brother in the massacre.

Bestseller Books Korea Sok-Yong Hwang The Guest