Why Korea wants Nobel Prize for literature

Novelist Kim Young-ha, right, and Swedish Ambassador to Korea Lars Gunnar Danielsson, left, listen to a question during the Seoul Literary Society meeting at the Scandanavian Design House in Seoul, last Monday. / Courtesy of Hynek Adamek

The Seoul Literary Society’s latest meeting last Monday was a thought-provoking one.

Novelist Kim Young-ha said the craving for a Korean Nobel Prize winner in literature is Koreans’ innate craving for recognition.

“Sooner or later, people will begin to ask if a Korean national can be the Nobel Prize winner this year,” novelist Kim said last Monday at the Scandinavian Design House in Seoul where the society’s 28th meeting took place.

This desire is an unconscious attempt to get compensation for a tragic history of Japanese colonization, during which Koreans were banned from speaking and writing their own language, he added.

Attention paid on whether a Korean national could be a Nobel literature winner has been high in recent years. Poet Ko Un has been mentioned as a nominee a few times, and the literary community has in vain waged campaigns to get him chosen.

The novelist also noted “Hallyu” as a problematic term speaking to Korea’s nationalism.

“It is a different version of nationalism. We (Koreans) now know Samsung and Hyundai are doing well outside Korea. Now, the desire to be known has spread to literature, music and art,” he said, adding that it’s also a reflection of low self-esteem, and will take ages to disappear.

Kim is acclaimed as one of the leading contemporary writers.

His debut novel “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” came out in 1996, making him a celebrity author. It was turned into a movie, and translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Kim is a son of military officer, and grew up in a military town of Hwacheon, Gangwon Province.

He said he grew up watching more North Korean channels on TV — his town had a better reception from North Korea than from South Korea — and that had a great deal of influence in forging his perception of North Korea. “It was like one big theatrical performance.”

Seeing his father’s colleague crossing the border into North Korea, and how the rest of his family had to choose to live in hibernation since then, became ingredients for his book “Republic is Calling You” (2006), which was translated into seven languages.

Kim also said North Korea was a deformed mirror of South Korea.

“Up until the 1980s, North and South Korea were like identical twins,” he said.

“Each year, I had to get military training.” Economic growth and social transformation enabled South Korea to move away from theatrical state-like system, but “we still have to look at North Korea to understand ourselves.”

Seoul Literary Society was established in 2007. Spearheaded by Swedish diplomat Lars Vargo, who was a poet himself, it has managed to invite prominent Korean writers, including Yi Mun-yol and Park Wan-seo. Now, the group is chaired by Vargo’s successor Lars Gunnar Danielsson who also writes. His autobiography was published in Sweden. <The Korea Times>


One Response to Why Korea wants Nobel Prize for literature

  1. Stephane MOT 24 September , 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Reforming the education system to make more room for both creativity and book reading could help.

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