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  • Raising the Profile of Korean Literature Overseas
  • Seong-Kon Kim (bio)

Korea: "A Glittering Land of Literature and the Arts"

It is well known that Korea was long treated as an obscure land, always left out of discussions about East Asia, which chiefly revolved around China and Japan. Sandwiched between its more famous neighbors, Korea was often peripheral, inconspicuous, and even invisible.

Today, however, Korea is quite well known globally, both the North and the South. Of course, the two Koreas have become known in different ways. North Korea has been in the international spotlight due to its sporadic launching of ballistic nuclear test missiles that pose a serious threat to world peace. People frown and cluck their tongues at North Korea's unpredictable and insolent behavior. It is no wonder that international publishers are interested in escapee memoirs or travelogues about North Korea that might help shed light on this tightly insulated and inscrutable nation.

By contrast, South Korea has become well known for its miraculous economic success, cutting-edge technology, and the widespread Korean cultural phenomenon called hallyu. Today, quite a few foreign government officials visit Korea every year to learn its secret recipe for achieving such breathtaking economic growth in such a short time. Naturally, many young foreigners, intrigued by the charm of hallyu, want to visit Korea these days. [End Page 271]

Recently, The Times Literary Supplement blog carried an encouraging piece entitled "A glittering Korea." Author Toby Richtig writes that in the U.K. there is a "seemingly insatiable appetite for publications about the Hermit Kingdom" and the ruling dynasty of North Korea. He continues, "But away from the escapee memoirs, famine histories and book-length speculations about the robustness, politically and gastrointestinally, of the youthful Dear Leader, it is the South that has been gaining headway in the more refined literary arts."

Indeed, while North Korea has been busy showing off its military muscle, South Korea has emerged on the global stage as a country with a rich cultural heritage and captivating literary arts. The article points out that the Literature Translation Institute of Korea plays a vital role in promoting Korean literature overseas. Indeed, LTI subsidizes the translation and publication of Korean literature in over thirty-six languages around the world. LTI Korea also runs the Translation Academy that trains professional translators, publishes the English quarterly journal Korean Literature Now, and helps Korean writers participate in major international literary events.

While congratulating Deborah Smith on receiving the 2016 Arts Foundation Award for her superb translation of Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian, Richtig argues that Korean literature in the U.K. is now on the rise: "Over the past few years there has been a glut of fiction in translation arriving from South Korea, much of it critically acclaimed and some of it even commercially successful." He continues, "This is partly thanks to the indefatigable Dalkey Archive, whose Library of Korean Literature, produced in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, will—when complete—amount to an impressive twenty-five novels and collections of short stories."

The New Yorker also recently published an intriguing article on Korean literature. In this insightful piece, Mythili G. Rao suggests that the twenty-five Dalkey Archive books offer a good [End Page 272] starting point for English-speaking readers to learn about Korean literature. Indeed, Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature series is invaluable for making Korean literature conspicuous and easily accessible in the Anglophone market. Rao also recognizes that South Korea is now visible everywhere: "With a G.D.P. of $1.4 trillion, South Korea has the world's thirteenth-largest economy, trailing Australia and Canada."

Richtig points out that Korean literature has been successful in the U.K.: "And while most of Korean literature's international success stories have emerged from America—with its sizeable Korean community—Britain now has a success story of its own." He ends his perceptive piece by congratulating Korean literature and encouraging its bright future: "So congratulations to Smith and congratulations to the art of translation and congratulations to Korean literature, which once again seems to be enjoying its place in the sun." As Richtig's title indicates...


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pp. 271-288
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