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  • Unfinished BildungsromanThe Year in Korea
  • Heui-Yung Park (bio)

Since 2020, comparatively few works of autobiography, biography, memoir, or other genres of life writing have been published in South Korea, where curfews, quarantines, and other forms of restrictions have been implemented because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among a small number of writings are Sanman Kim's Sŏrŭnsal, sŏtpurŭn chasŏjŏn (2022), Hanok Sin's Sonnyŏ ege tŭllryŏ chunŭn harabŏji hoegorok (2022), and T'aehun Kim's Sŭmusal, chasŏjŏnni p'iryo hamnida (2021).1 Sŭmusal shows us a glimpse into the common, stifling experience of Korean teenage students, most of whom are required to study from early morning to late night at school, home, or elsewhere to qualify for their ideal university, and whose lives therefore resemble those of all Koreans under lockdowns during the pandemic. As COVID-19 transitions to being endemic, Kim's life story addresses long-standing problems in the Korean educational system, reminding readers of those whose lives are still sealed off until they finish their high school education.

Kim is a twenty-year-old college student who was accepted by Seoul National University (SNU)—one of the top-ranking universities in South Korea—in 2020, and who majors in international relations. Kim's first and only published work, Sŭmusal tells the story of his self-transformation from a juvenile delinquent into an outstanding student. The book can be read as a typical success story of someone who has made it to their desired university through hard work and perseverance, serving as "tonggi puyŏ ŭi sudan" (a means for motivation) for younger students toward achieving their own dreams of entering one of Korea's top universities (9). But Sŭmusal also shows the considerable costs of Kim's success—long days, sleep deprivation, extreme stress, and a temporary deterioration in health—that many high school students pay while preparing for their college entrance exams. Kim's autobiographical account therefore gives voice to students who are often ignored, leading readers to ponder the education they themselves received, and what needs to be done to create a better environment. [End Page 53]

Heavily informed by Confucianism's emphasis on the importance of education in one's life, Korea's passion and interest in schooling also has negative consequences. Except for its vocational schools, Korea's junior high and high schools focus their curricula exclusively on preparing students for college entrance exams. As early as the uppermost grade in elementary school, students begin to study under excessive pressure from their parents and teachers. According to Lee Ju-Eun, to deliver knowledge and intensify competition, most schools adopt "kwallyo chejŏk hoegiljŏk t'ongje sisŭt'em" (a bureaucratic uniform control system), "ŏmgyŏk han kyuje ilbyŏndo ŭi chejae" (strictly regulated, unilateral sanctions), and rigid evaluation practices (189). This highly competitive environment, in which students memorize information only for the sake of high examination scores, results in "in'gan robot hwa" (human robotization), which goes against holistic education (178).

To expose the Korean educational system's current problems, Sŭmusal tells Kim's own story of transformation in the form of the bildungsroman, or novel of development. But the usual Western plot of educational progress contains a permanent flight from a repressive environment or people (Smith and Watson 263). By returning to the restrictive, controlling world, Kim takes a different route. Becoming domesticated, he devotes himself to accomplishing his educational goals. Kim's story of development therefore takes place inside the familiar institution that disciplines and monitors students like himself, who compete to earn better grades than their peers. This inverse bildungsroman empowers the Korean speaker, enabling him to demonstrate what he has undergone to students with high academic aspirations. That Kim, although a rebel, could accommodate himself to the institution and achieve what others strive for within it—entry into one of Korea's most prominent universities—validates his voice, resonating with Joan W. Scott's idea of experience as empowering referentiality.

Kim's bildungsroman moves from age fifteen, at the height of his delinquency, to his transformation into a tamed student living...