Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.

You can follow Colin Marshall at blog.colinmarshall.org, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

Korea Has Started Using English Names — But When Will It Stop?

By Colin Marshall

As it spreads across the world, Starbucks has come to serve many functions, not least giving the kind of travelers inclined to complain about the global homogenization of place an Exhibit A to point to. Such travelers make those complaints with a special intensity when in Seoul, which in addition to a robust local coffee-shop economy boasts the highest number of Starbucks locations per capita of any city in the world. I take a slightly brighter view of the green mermaid’s ongoing journey from Seattle to omnipresence, and not just because they offer those twin lifebloods of the 21st-century writer, coffee and reliable wi-fi: Starbucks stores, despite and indeed because of their efforts to hold every aspect of their experience steady across cities, countries, and continents, have ended up becoming the places where pure contrast forces the host culture’s deepest-seated characteristics into view. Continue reading

Korea in the World and the World in Korea: Selections from the LARB Korea Blog’s Second Year

By Colin Marshall 

The past year, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog’s second, has proven eventful not just within Korea but in the relationship between Korea and the rest of the world. Not, of course, that many casual Korea observers elsewhere in the world can tune in much signal through the noise projected, at an ever-louder volume, by the northern half of the peninsula. What better way to look past the attention-seizing missile tests, lurid salvos of propaganda, flamboyant acts of internecine violence, and increasingly bad haircuts than to revisit Coréennes, French filmmaker Chris Marker’s photobook of his 1957 trip to North Korea, a place he then thought “worthy of being called the politest country in the world?” Continue reading

Yoo Jae-ha’s K-Pop Masterpiece Because I Love You, 30 Years After His Untimely Death

By Colin Marshall

Thirty years ago this month, a Korean singer-songwriter by the name of Yoo Jae-ha died at the age of 25. Had the car accident that killed him happened a few months earlier, before he released his first and only album Because I Love You, Korean pop music, now better known as “K-pop,” might have taken a different sonic direction entirely. Though he died believing it had failed, his record has not just risen to the status of a beloved pop masterpiece but emanates an influence still clearly heard in hit songs in South Korea today. The posthumously granted title “Father of Korean Ballads,” as well as a music scholarship and yearly song contest, honor his memory, but on some level they also acknowledge that Korean pop music may never see — or more importantly, hear — an innovator like him again. Continue reading

At the Intersection of Korea and Mongolia: the Uncompromising Stories of Jeon Sungtae’s Wolves

By Charles Montgomery

In the past, Korean literature has had a strong tendency towards painful navel-gazing, being more or less defined by the traumas native to Korea at the time. At the turn of the 20th century, authors, naturalistic ones like Kim Tongin as well as more “visionary” ones such as Yi Kwangsu, rallied behind the flag of “modernism.” When Japan invaded and overtook Korea, the literature shifted toward concealed (and sometimes not so concealed) explorations of the effects of colonialism and national powerlessness. With the end of World War II and the brief interregnum of “liberation,” literature turned toward a Korean future, sometimes also exploring the meaning of the colonial and collaborative past. After the split of Korea and its Civil War came almost nothing but pundan munhak, or literature of separation. Similarly, when Park Chung-hee frogmarched Korea into the modern economic era, writers examined the political, social, and economic costs of this great leap forward. Continue reading

Looking Back at LA Arirang, the 1990s Korean Sitcom about Life in Los Angeles

By Colin Marshall

Not long after I started studying Korean, I signed up for a Japanese class, Japanese being the closest language I could find classes for in Santa Barbara at that time, in hopes of meeting a Korean international student with whom to practice the one I really wanted to learn. I soon did, and he invited me to a meal at his favorite Korean restaurant in town (or rather, one of Santa Barbara’s few Chinese restaurants, but one that happened to serve Korean dishes on the side). It turned out he had something more on his mind than introducing me to the food of his homeland. “I have a question to ask you,” he said after ordering, and nothing I could have considered in that moment would have prepared me for what came out next: “What is the American dream?” Continue reading

In Korea, All You Need Is Love (Or a Love Motel, at Least)

By Stefano Young

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post. Continue reading

Where Modern Korean Drama Began: the Heroism, Villainy, and Idealism of Yi Kwang Su’s The Soil

By Charles Montgomery

Yi Kwang-su (pictured above) has been mentioned here before for his theoretical contributions to modern Korean modern literature in the early 20th century as well as for his wandering political eye. As a writer of some repute best known for the novels Heartless and The Soil (흙), the latter of which which is, to my mind, the spiritual progenitor of the modern Korean drama. Yi’s stories are laced with love triangles, betrayals, defeats, revenges, and The Soil brings in a spectacularly failed suicide attempt as well. Doomed lovers make promises they can’t keep, wealth differentials grind people into dirt, and “true” heart and dedication (according to Yi’s model) bring no tangible rewards. Continue reading

From Language Lessons to Sex Slavery: Korea’s New Comfort-Woman Comedy I Can Speak

By Colin Marshall

Over the past few months, a publicity blitz of the caliber usually reserved for Hollywood superhero spectacles has urged Koreans to see a I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크), a movie about a straight-laced young civil servant who reluctantly gives English lessons to an old battleaxe. Or at least that’s how it looked at first: as more detailed press and advertisements came out, people started to sense something more complicated than the Korean Harold and Maude (if that) they might have expected. Soon word spread that it actually deals with one of the most dangerously controversial issues in the country today: the plight of the “comfort women,” the young girls forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the Second World War. Continue reading

Three Recent Books, Including a Funny and Inventive Graphic Novel, On What It Means to Be a Korean

By Charles Montgomery

Time to take a break from the history of Korean literature and talk a little bit about three recently published works, each of which shines a light on a particular aspect of the Korean experience: one story and essay collection that shines a light on Korean literature under colonialism and just after; some “international” Korean fiction; and a lovely if voluminous manwha (or graphic novel) on man’s struggles with the city, the countryside, and himself. Continue reading

Consumerism Is Culture: a Visit to Korea’s Lotte Department Store

By Stefano Young

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post. Continue reading