5 must-read novels by South Korean writers

These works—all written by women—are highly acclaimed not just in South Korea, but on the international literary stage as well.

The past several years has seen the Korean Wave taking the world by storm. From K-dramas to K-pop, K-food to K-beauty, there’s no denying the fierce grip Korean culture has on many of us.

There is one other aspect of SoKor’s rich culture that is gaining traction: literature. Recent years have seen South Korean authors jostling for more shelf space against American, European and other Asian writers, bringing to light the complexities of ordinary life in South Korea beyond the shimmering veneer of pop culture. 

Here is a short list of what I think are essential reading if you want to get yourself into literature written by female South Korean authors—a rabbit hole that’s quite different from the glamorous and glittering K-world which we have gotten used to.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo

Poster of the film adaptation of Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji Young, Born 1982

One of the most straightforward prose I’ve ever read but also one of the most powerful and poignant, Cho Nam Joo’s searing novel Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 gained significant attention—even backlash from conservatives—for its portrayal of the everyday discrimination and struggles faced by women in contemporary Korean society. The novel, despite its brevity, became a cultural phenomenon, sparking long overdue discussions about gender equality and women’s rights in South Korea and beyond.

The story follows Kim Ji-young’s life from birth to motherhood, highlighting the gender-based discrimination she faces as a woman in South Korea in each chapter of her life. It addresses issues such as traditional gender roles, the pressure on women to conform to societal norms, and the often-mind-numbing task of balancing family and career, especially among mothers. Note that what the name Kim Ji-young is to South Korea is like what Juan dela Cruz is to the Philippines, it’s a very common name, further highlighting how deeply ingrained gender-based discrimination is across all Korean women.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 was adapted into a film in 2019, starring Jung Yu-mi as the troubled Kim Ji-young and Gong Yoo as her husband.

One of South Korea’s most prominent feminist writers, Cho Nam-joo’s other important works include Saha: A Novel and Miss Kim Knows.

My Brilliant Life by Kim Ae-ran

One of my all-time favorite novels, My Brilliant Life by Kim Ae-ran is an uplifting story that follows the life of Ah-reum, a young boy who has progeria, a rare genetic condition that causes accelerated aging in children.

Despite his condition, Ah-reum has a brilliant mind and an optimistic personality. The story is narrated from his perspective, giving readers a peek into his thoughts as he navigates the challenges of growing up with a body that ages much faster. Ah-reum’s parents, who had him when they were teenagers, also play pivotal roles in the story as they face the difficulties of raising a child with a special and misunderstood condition.

The novel’s enduring popularity is due partly to how it explores universal themes such as family, love, and resilience in the face of adversity. It has been praised for its touching portrayal of the characters, eliciting both laughter and tears from readers.

My Brilliant Life was adapted into film in 2014, starring Song Hye-kyo and Gang Dong-won as the parents of Ah-reum.

Kim Ae-ran is one of South Korea’s most popular writers. While My Brilliant Life catapulted her to the pantheon of the country’s writing greats, she has also written other novels and short stories that have garnered critical acclaim, most of which probe into the complexities of human relationships.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Perhaps the most popular novel in this listicle, and also occupying a spot on my all-time favorite list, Pachinko by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee has garnered near universal acclaim for its sweeping narrative and profound examination of the Korean immigrant experience in Japan—a true epic in every sense of the word.

Spanning several generations from the early 1900s to the late 1980s, Pachinko chronicles the lives of a Korean family living in Japan (called Zainichi Koreans), focusing on the protagonist Sunja and her descendants. Her life-changing decision to leave her motherland after having gotten herself pregnant by a wealthy man, sets in motion a series of events that has profound effects on her family.

Pachinko received praise for its richly drawn characters, detailed storytelling, and shedding light on the Korean diaspora in Japan.

The title Pachinko is a popular Japanese arcade game, in the novel’s context, however, it symbolizes life’s unpredictability just like the random nature of the game. In the novel, Min Jin Lee explores themes of identity, discrimination, family, and the pursuit of dreams amid a harsh socio-historical landscape.

Pachinko received praise for its richly drawn characters, detailed storytelling, and shedding light on the Korean diaspora in Japan.

Itwas adapted into a limited Apple TV series in 2022, with a star-studded cast including the Philippines’ beloved oppa Lee Min Ho as the dashing Koh Hansu. The series has been renewed for a second season.

Min Jin Lee was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Her works are known for their piercing yet empathic insight into Korean immigration.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

The book, originally published in 2008, is one of the first ones to introduce Korean literature to a global audience.

The story revolves around the disappearance of an elderly woman, Park So-nyo, in a busy subway station in Seoul. It was only then that her family realized how they took her for granted. The novel is told from multiple perspectives, with each an exploration into themes such as family, identity, memory, and the sacrifices made by a mother for her family.

Please Look After Mom won the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. Kyung-sook Shin’s other works include novels, short stories, and essays, many of which have received acclaim for their style and social commentary. She is considered one of South Korea’s most prominent authors, with her writing contributing to the popularity of Korean literature the world over.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Just like Please Look After Mom, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is one of the first Korean novels to receive international recognition. Published in 2007, the novel is composed of three intertwined novellas that follow the life of the main character, Yeong-hye, and her decision to become a vegetarian.

The story begins with Yeong-hye’s choice to stop eating meat which, though seemingly inconsequential a decision, has profound consequences in her life and the lives of those around her. The Vegetarian, which can be disturbing at some turns, explores themes related to identity, rebellion against societal norms, and the complexities of mental health.

The novel received widespread critical acclaim and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, bringing Han Kang’s work, and with it Korean literature, to a broader and more global audience.

The new lifestyle.