History of Korean Science Fiction and Fantasy literature
by Yeo-kyeong Yun (YK Yun)
How and when did it happen in Korea?
Koreans have loved fantasy literature for thousands of years. Many beloved old Korean folk stories and literature classics still influence modern day Korean literature, TV dramas and movies.
Web-based fantasy fiction has a bigger market share than any other fiction genre in Korea.
The science fiction genre first appeared in Korea 110 years ago with The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea, published in Taegeukhakbo in 1907. The first work of Korean science fiction was Doctor K’s Study by Kim Dong-in in 1929.
Lovers Under the Moon, Sin Yoonbok (1758~?).
Mural painting of Goguryeo-Old Korean dynasty (Mid 6th century).
Wearing a hat decorated with golden ornaments,
A white horse is slowly circling.
As it flutters its wide sleeves,
It now looks like a bird from the east.
The above is the poem “Goguryeo” written by Chinese poet Li Po (702~762 AD) after watching a Goguryeo dance performance in the Tang dynasty (China).
At first, many works of science fiction were written and translated by reformists with the intention of enlightenment and Westernization; after the 1950s the boom took off in earnest. It’s no coincidence that this was at the same time as the outbreak of the Korean War. The war was when everything collapsed. Cities, buildings, culture, families collapsed, and even the Korean peninsula itself was divided into the two Koreas.
New things began to fill the wasteland left by the war’s destruction. It’s no surprise that in the 1950s author Han Nak-won began publishing a number of science fiction works containing messages of young people’s hopes and dreams for a vast universe. In the 50s and 60s most written works were comic books and young adult novels.
By the 1970s, artists like Bok Geo-il (1946~) began to gain recognition abroad for their deeply sociological science fiction. Even so, science fiction and fantasy were still not mainstream literature.
In the 1990s, Djuna’s work, with its high popular appeal and literary skill, created a chance for science fiction to gain attention. Now many artists, such as Kim Chang-gyu, Bae Myeong-hun, and Kim Bo-young, are following that path. In addition, things changed in 2010 when mainstream writers began to borrow science fiction devices. As a large number of writers entered science fiction literature, the quality of work improved and public expectations for science fiction literature genre were raised.
Are there science fiction and fantasy in South Korea?
- but still, do you really need to read science fiction and fantasy in South Korea? That’s questionable. Because TV news is a like a science fiction fantasy given out for free in real-time in South Korea.
South Korea as military science fiction
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, after eating lunch, I’m dozing off whilst listening to the news that Kim Jong-eun has just fired a missile over Japan. (I can’t help myself feeling sleepy, vaguely aware that people in Japan are watching ‘the missile flying horror show’ on live TV at that moment.)
Of course, I am deeply concerned that our neighboring country is in state of shock. and we are in state of shock, too.
Growing threats against Japan means that their Self Defense Forces may try to come over to Korea and stay there to defend THEIR safety, maybe forever? Not great news for Koreans.
At 8 Pm, I eat Gimbap (Korean fast food), working late in the office whilst listening to a conversation between China, Japan, the USA, and Russia about whether they must bomb North Korea tomorrow.
For reference, I live in Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. It takes just an hour to get to North Korea by car. Talk of bombing North Korea is talk of bombing my house.
In this case, I have no room to think about the fact that if another war breaks out in South Korea, there’s a high possibility of it starting World War 3. Or it will just simply stop the the world (65% of memory chips are made in South Korea, as well as LCD’s etc.)
This will bring the opportunity for president Trump to win a Nobel Prize for make pre-war show and quieting North Korea in time. An additional prize will be an astronomical amount of money paid by South Korean for US military equipment. It’s a great advantage to him. Wanna bet?
South Korea as dark fantasy
But I think it’s better than last year. Last winter, I had a flu for weeks because I was attending candlelight protests in the cold every Saturday, calling for the impeachment of a president (the daughter of a murdered dictator) who let her friend (the daughter of the pseudo-religious leader of a shamanist cult) get deeply involved in the country’s politics.
I feel like I was living in a science fiction/fantasy world; It felt like this modern democracy had momentarily gone back 2000 years (Teleportation, one might say) to a witch-led theocracy.
Millions of people gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza every weekend to welcome Christmas Eve and the New Year. There was no rubbish, and no one got hurt, it was a large-scale but peaceful protest. A country that lives with the constant threat of war having a large-scale, peaceful protest for six months?
The event, which seemed only possible in the far future or like something from a science fiction novel, was reported worldwide. South Korea becomes one of the world’s interesting newsmakers that news reporters treasure.
Millions of people gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza every weekend for 6 mont
How did the Korean Wave influence Korean science fiction?
Does living in the real time science fiction world mean that there is no interest in the science fiction and fantasy genres? Well, you want to know whether science fiction in Korea is popular? The answer is YES!
The Korean news might give you more goose bumps than The Exorcist (1973), and be more interesting than Season 1 of Game of Thrones. Even so, maybe that’s why this is possible. There is a Korean wave (an increase in global popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990’s).
The Korean Wave is spreading beyond Asia to Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and the continental U.S. In this year’s billboard music chart.,Kpop group BTS ranked number 1, above Justin Bieber.
Thanks to the Korean Wave, many South Korean science fiction or fantasy TV dramas and movies are receiving attention both domestically and internationally. My Love From The Star (2013), for example, has reached 5.4 billion downloads in one year in China alone, and a remake rights to the U.S. are being promoted.
Some of South Korean science fiction dramas and movies are being pushed for American remakes. The remake rights of the science fiction drama Nine (2014) were sold to the U.S., and the movie A Love Story (2000) was reinvented in Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves’ The Lake House (2006). A remake of the KBS drama Good Doctor which aired in 2013, is about to air on U.S. network ABC. The Gift of God remake entitled Somewhere Between has been airing on ABC TV every week since July. It is a gripping story where a mother returns to the past, before her daughter is murdered, and is given a chance to save her, and all the surprises and action that arise in the process provide a roller coaster of emotions for viewers.
The drama W tells the story of a webtoon character who fights with the author who created him, and comes out into the real world only to fall in love with the author’s daughter.
Science fiction directors Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Okja) and Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) are showing the world their brilliance. Based on their popularity, Korean TV dramas and movies are experimenting with no limits on subject matter, and science fiction devices are no exception. Many of the Korean TV dramas currently being broadcast borrow and experiment with various science fiction and fantasy devices.
Statistics show that nearly 20% of dramas made in Korea in 2017 contain SF ideas. This rate goes much higher when their target audience is young people..
SF Movie, Pierce Train / SF Movie, Okja by Bong Joon–ho
Fantasy Movie, Thirst by Park Chan Wook
A Love Story (2000)…
…was reinvented in Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves’ The Lake House (2006)
The Gift of God remake entitled Somewhere Between has been airing on ABC TV
Remake of the KBS drama ‘Good doctor,’ which aired in 2013, is about to air on U.S. network ABC.
My Love From The Star (2013) a remake is being promoted by selling the rights to the U.S
What’s new with Korean SF?
· There are new platforms!
America has graphic novels; Japan has anime; and South Korea has web comics. Web-based comics known as ‘webtoons’ are popular. Thanks to Korea’s world’s fastest optic networks. Webtoons are the ideal comics, since they can also be read on smartphones. They are coloured cartoons that can also incorporate music, special effects, and moving images. They took off through the trend of changing platforms from books to TV to smartphones.
Now, more and more webtoons are being made into TV dramas, movies, or even novels.
The webtoon market is worth 700 million dollars a year in Korea alone. This popularity is likely to be exported to China and the United States.Even in the U.S., where mostly only hero stories are popular, other genres (romance, science fiction, etc.) have become available through webtoons (tapas media).
The Korean company Naver has translated webtoons into five languages through the Line service and is sharing them successfully online.
The next Korean Wave, surpassing even TV dramas and music, may be of webtoons.
· South Korean Science Fiction has a new kind of story.
South Korean science fiction authors and readers include many women and young people. In addition, the wealth of story-worthy events we have accumulated over the last thousand years are a resource for imagining new stories.
Korea-American writer Lee Yoon-ha is known for telling Korean stories within his work. His first feature-length work, Ninefox Gambit, won a Locus award this year and was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards.
· South Korean science fiction literature is still a new addition to the world market.
That’s because this is only the beginning. With the exception of Lee Yoon-ha and the author Kim Bo-young, who writes short story for Clark’s World and FAA, there are hardly any translations of Korean science fiction. A collection of Korean science fiction short stories is set to be published in the U.S. for the first time next year, 2018.
Korean contemporary SF books
Korea’s Biggest SF brand Goldenbough’s Living next door superhero, Love monorail.
Eunhangnamu Publishing’s Gamatle Style (Bae, Myung hoon), Jaein Jaewook Jaehoon (Jung saerang)
· South Korean audiences, readers
At the same time as it exports its culture, Korea has become one of the world’s largest consumers of movies, games, and web comics (Hollywood holds premieres in Korea and sends actors to promote movies in Korea directly so as not to miss Korean audiences)
Could living life as if every day is the last be related to this phenomenon? I don’t know. This goes back 2,000 years ago. According to the Chinese old book of Later Han on East Neighbour (AD25~220 後漢書 東夷傳) ‘The East neighbour (Koreans) are popular for enjoying dancing and singing activities’. So, I guess it was a long habit of Koreans to be interested in entertainments. We would like to consider ourselves as peace loving and art loving people. Karaoke is found in every corner of Korea, and poems are written on subway doors. Probably there are more poets in Korea than the rest of the world (officially 20,000 poets are registered at writers associations of Korea.)
Korea is proud of the fact that we never invaded another country nor were colonized by one (except for the brief 45 years of Japanese colonization in the 19th century, force to abandon our culture and language, an embarrassing moment in 5,000 years of Korean history)
We can also see this from a different perspective. The economy of South Korea is the 11th largest in the world. South Korean people tend to spend money for great experiences. Spend good time at beach? Hmmm…that’s an ideal situation. But reality is far from the ideal. South Korea has high population density.
As well as Seoul, with its population of 10 million, the populations of Busan, Daegu and various other cities are way over 3 million. This is not the traditional countryside but a modern metropolis where people live narrowly crowded into the city. There are only a few parks available, so you must fill your free time with various cultural activities… .
This active pattern of consumption means Korea is moving towards a positive understanding and enjoyment of rather new and strange science fiction and fantasy. Given the fact that the country is where thousands of years of tradition mixed with several decades of dizzyingly rapid modernization, both fantasy pasts and science fiction futures have become familiar to us.