- Life Writing in the MakingThe Year in Korea
Since the second half of 2016, a notable number of life writing texts, especially memoirs and autobiographies, have appeared in South Korea. Though fine distinctions are drawn between memoirs and autobiographies by life writing specialists such as Lee Quinby, Julie Rak, and Nancy K. Miller, in Korea memoirs tend to represent life stories of renowned figures, while autobiographies tell those of the less privileged in society due to class, gender, or some other marginalized status. Recently, educational books and workshops on how to write and publish one's own stories have proliferated. Such recent developments in Korean life writing show us the field's shaping characteristics, albeit with some cautions, and suggest ways it may continue to grow.
Among the various genres of life narratives, hoegorok (memoirs) have appeared in greater numbers in recent years, paralleling somewhat the memoir boom that Julie Rak describes in North America. Memoirs published in South Korea since mid-2016 include the thirty-fourth Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Song Min-sun's Pingha nŭn umjiginda: pihaekhwa wa t'ongil oegyo ŭi hyŏnjang (2016); Chŏng Tar-yŏng's Chŏng Tar-yŏng hoegorok (2017); the Minister of Construction from 1963 to 1964 Chŏng Nag-ŭn's Chŏng Nag-ŭn hoegorok (2017); Han Yong-wŏn's Han Yong-wŏn hoegorok (2017); and President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988 Chun Doo Hwan's Chŏn Tuhwan hoegorok (2017), which consists of three volumes. Compared to publications in the late twentieth century, when a maximum of three and a minimum of zero came out each year, the number of titles published in 2016 and 2017 is quite significant.
The memoirs above represent a few established trends in Korea. More often than not, memoirs are written by important political figures or people who have been successful in their professions. Song, the writer of Pingha nŭn umjiginda, started his career as a diplomat in the mid-1970s and continued to [End Page 619] be involved in foreign policy and national security over the next thirty years. He then became a member of the eighteenth National Assembly and served until recently as the president of the University of North Korean Studies. Although less well known, another example is Chŏng Tar-yŏng, who worked as an accounts manager at a South Korean conglomerate, Hyosung Corporation. And in the recently published memoir by a highly successful political figure, Chun describes being born to very poor parents during Korea's colonial period and eventually governing the country in the 1980s. As these examples suggest, memoirs in Korea have largely become an exclusive genre, practiced by those with social status and what they present as an authority they have earned because they are self-made.
That memoirs quite often represent the lives of successful men in the political or social sphere can be partly attributed to the publication of memoirs in previous decades by Korean presidents after they have retired from the presidency. Apart from the obvious exception of exiled and assassinated leaders, Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, respectively, most presidents, often with the help of their supporting staff, have written and published their life stories. A list would include Yun Boseon's Oeroun nanal ŭi sŏnt'ak (1991); Kim Yŏng-sam's Kim Yŏng-sam hoegorok: Minjujuŭi rŭl wihan na ŭi t'ujaeng (2000); Roh Moohyun's Unmyŏng ida (2010); Roh Tae-woo's No T'ae-u hoegorok (2011); Kim Daejung's Kim Daejung chasŏjŏn 1 & 2 (2011); and Lee Myungbak's Taet'ongnyŏng ŭi sigan, 2008–2013 (2015). With the exception of Kim Daejung chasŏjŏn, which declares itself to be an autobiography even though its structure and its contents, such as his successes and excellent qualities, are similar to the other volumes, all of the above publications are entitled or generally referred to as memoirs, confirming that this genre provides the stories of those whose lives are worthy of being reflected upon, recorded, and read—the lives of presidents, for instance.