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  • Children’s Literature in Late Colonial Korea
  • Dafna Zur (bio)

Children’s literature1 in Korea can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century. Ch’oe Namsŏn’s magazine Sonyŏn [Youth]2 was the first of its kind—it was intended for young readers. The first volume of this magazine carried a poem that Ch’oe dedicated to his imagined young readers, “From the Sea to the Boy,”3 a poem that is considered by some to be the defining [End Page 347] moment separating premodern and modern literature in Korea.4 Ch’oe and others continued to publish magazines marketed for a young audience throughout the colonial period. Their numbers grew with the proliferation of print culture, and circulated with the growth of consumer culture and the gradual rise in literacy. But just as children’s literature represents adult views of childhood and reflects what adults deem appropriate for children on their journey toward adulthood, colonial children’s literature in Korea reflects the ideological shifts in politics and society that children were expected to adhere to. The socialization of children and their conformity to these changing ideologies was of critical importance for the transformation of children into modern citizens and loyal colonial subjects.

Given the intense militarization of the late 1930s and the strict censorship and control exercised by the colonial government in this period,5 it is hardly surprising that children’s magazines became sites for the reproduction and manipulation of hegemonic colonial discourse. What is particularly notable is that despite the tight control of censorship and accelerated assimilation policies, gentler voices also filtered through. So while the late colonial magazine Sonyŏn published between 1937–19406 was largely a channel for Japanese wartime propaganda, the magazine also featured prominent proletarian poets and fiction writers who, while stripped of their explicit leftist bite, still managed to comment on the evils of the colonial capitalist economy. They exuded a spirit of sympathy for children and the working class, [End Page 348] and expressed, though subtly, a resistance to authority that was a prominent feature of proletarian children’s magazines like Pyŏllara and Sinsonyŏn of the early 1930s.

The most significant voice of contention in late colonial Korea is undoubtedly that of its most talented and inspiring (mostly children’s) writer of the colonial period: Hyŏn Tŏk (1909-?). It was perhaps an unlikely venue for his work, but Sonyŏn published Hyŏn’s short stories from August of 1937 until the cessation of the magazine in 1940. Yet despite his widely acknowledged talent, Hyŏn was doomed to anonymity in South Korea until recently, perhaps because of his short career, his relatively limited output, his defection to North Korea during the war, and the fact that he wrote for children. Hyŏn’s works, which attest to a rich imagination, poetic expression, and a profound sense of identification with children, lack the usual overtones of patronizing judgment. His intimate and sincere voice reverberated even more strikingly in Sonyŏn because his stories often appeared sandwiched between essays praising the Hitler-Jugend and news from the front. He succeeded in being socially engaged while avoiding, for the most part, the traps of didacticism and judgmental condescension. He wrote with masterful subtlety and spoke from a place of deep affection and sincere sympathy for his child characters.

Hyŏn Tŏk was born in 1909 into a family that had once been quite prominent but had lost its riches due to his father’s inferior management. He graduated from middle school and attended high school for only one year before his finances prevented him from continuing his studies. These events apparently brought him closer to the mission statement of the KAPF writers.7 Hyŏn’s debut took place with a short story that took first prize in a newspaper competition in 1927; he was seventeen at the time. His official appearance on the literary scene came several years later, in 1932.8 [End Page 349]

It was only in 1938, however, that Hyŏn entered the literary scene with full force with his adult novel Namsaengi, which was published serially by...


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