How To Know Modern Korean Literature | Top 10 Korean Books

Are you interested in South Korean culture?

I recently mentioned in my post with the best 10 Korean movies that the Korean movie scene is hot.

But what about Korean books?

Reading is a great way to learn about a culture, so if you are interested in Korea, books should definitely be included.

Korean books

A Short Korean Books History

Korean literature has a rich and complex history that dates back centuries. Various influences have shaped it, including Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and political and social movements.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Korean literature started to show the country’s fight for freedom from Japan, which had taken over Korea in 1910. Many writers, like Yi Kwang Su and Choe Chang Ik, focused on this topic. They wrote about the dire situation during the Japanese occupation and vouched for Korean nationalism.

After World War II, Korea became independent. The themes in Korean literature changed and writers tried new ideas and styles. One of the major changes was the rise of literature around the traumas of the Korean War and its aftermath.

Korean books

Modern Korean Books

Nowadays, Korean literature explores themes of identity, family, and social change. These themes provide a unique perspective on Korea’s rich history and culture. I’m sure these topics will keep readers interested for a long time.

Now that you have more background, let’s dive into my Top 10 Korean Books.

I’m also curious about your picks. If you have any recommendations for must-read Korean books, let me know in the comments!

So what are the top Korean books you should add to your reading list?

Interested in good books or Korean culture?

Check out these 10 modern Korean books.


1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Korean books

Pachinko on Amazon

This famous Korean novel by Min Jin Lee starts at the beginning of the 1900s.

Sunja is a young woman who gets pregnant without being married. To save face, she is forced to marry a stranger. Together they move to Japan, but as Koreans they’re treated as second-class citizens, facing discrimination and prejudice.

Even Sunja’s children and grandchildren struggle with their identities and living in a society that doesn’t fully accept them. Moreover, they must navigate the complexities of their mixed heritage and the challenges of living in a country that is not their own. Additionally, the discrimination and prejudice they face are compounded by the trauma of historical events like the Korean War and the Japanese occupation.

Through the character’s eyes, we can see how historical events like World War II and the Korean War affected their lives and how they changed and managed to stay alive.

Pachinko is a story about family, strength, and the search for a place to belong; which also shows the Korean diaspora in Japan in a rich and nuanced way. W

With its historical detail and deeply human stories, Pachinko is adapted and available on streaming platforms with an impressive IMDB score of 8.4/10!

2. Please Look After Mom by Kyung Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom on Amazon

Kyung Sook Shin‘s book “Please Look After Mom” is a moving and sorrowful story about family, identity, and loss. It tells the story of a Korean family whose mother goes missing. The event forces them to think about who they are and their relationships with each other.

In this book, the mother figure is a quiet person who spent her whole life caring for her family, often putting their needs before hers.

When she goes missing in a busy subway station; her family faces realizes how much they took her for granted.

Please Look After Mom is both sad and hopeful and a powerful meditation on the complicated nature of family relationships and the enduring power of love.

Notably, Kyung-Sook Shin writes in a lyrical and emotional way, and she can capture the complexity of human emotions with grace and sensitivity.

3. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 on Amazon

This is one of the most highly-acclaimed Korean books that has made waves in Korea and worldwide.

Kim Jiyoung is a Korean woman in her adolescence who struggles with gender inequality and societal pressure in a male-dominated society.

It has 3 chapters following different periods of Kim Jiyoung’s life, from childhood to adulthood.

Firstly, we see her growing up in a patriarchal society that values boys over girls. Secondly, we see her navigating the challenges of college and the workforce as a woman in a male-dominated society. Finally, we see her struggling to balance her career aspirations with her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Overall, these chapters provide a nuanced and insightful look at the challenges that women face in Korean society.

Through her experiences, we see how gender shapes her life and the lives of those around her. From a young age, Kim Jiyoung is told that she must be “quiet and obedient” and that her worth is determined by her ability to conform to societal expectations. As she grows older, she faces discrimination and harassment in the workplace and struggles to balance her career aspirations with her responsibilities as a wife and mother.

If you want to explore Korean literature, “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by author Cho Nam Joo is a must-read that will leave a lasting impression. It offers a unique perspective on Korean society and the challenges that women face and will resonate with readers worldwide.

4. Human Acts by Han Kang

Korean books

Human Acts on Amazon

A young boy named Dong-ho is killed in South Korea during a violent student uprising, which is also the topic of the Korean movie A Taxi Driver(#7 in my post with the best 10 Korean Movies).

As a powerful and haunting book that explores violence, trauma, and resistance themes; the plot is the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising, a student-led protest against South Korea’s military dictatorship brutally suppressed by government forces in 1980.

Through a series of interconnected stories and Han Kang‘s lyrical and precise writing, we see the impact of the uprising on the lives of ordinary people and how they struggle to come to terms with the trauma and violence they have experienced. The book is both profoundly personal and political, and it offers a searing critique of the legacy of authoritarianism in Korea and its lasting impact on the country and its people.

5. The Tears of my Soul by Kim Hyon Hui

Human Acts on Amazon

This Korean book gives a unique look at North Korean society and the way its government and intelligence agencies work. “The Tears of my Soul,” is a memoir about the author’s life as a North Korean spy and the events that led to her leaving North Korea and going to South Korea.

Kim Hyon-hui was trained as a spy from a young age, and the North Korean government put him in charge of many terrorist attacks. In 1987, she helped bomb a Korean Air flight, which killed all 115 people on board, including passengers and crew. After the attack, South Korean police caught her, and she eventually admitted that she was part of the plan.

It is a powerful and moving memoir that will stay with you long. You should read it because it gives you a unique look at the history and politics of the Korean peninsula.

6. The Plotters by Kim Un Su

The Plotters on Amazon

Behind every assassination, a mastermind or plotter stays out of sight.

Who are the ones making plans? What do they want?

The Plotters by Kim Un Su tells the story of Reseng, a professional assassin who works for an underground organization known as the Library.

The Library is a secret society of assassins operating outside the law, taking on contracts from clients who want to eliminate their enemies. Reseng is one of the Library’s top assassins and has spent his entire life living in its shadow. However, when he begins to question the morality of his work, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous game of revenge and betrayal.

As the author’s story-telling skill is evocative, “The Plotters” is a gripping and thought-provoking Korean book that will keep you on your bookshelves.

7. At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki Ho

At Least We Can Apologize on Amazon

Lee Ki Ho beautifully crafted At Least We Can Apologize as a look at mourning and how it affects people emotionally. This Korean book is about people who get paid to go to funerals and comfort people who can’t be there. Through their experiences, we can see how mourning can bring a sense of closure and catharsis. Still, it can also be overwhelming and tiring.

The background is Korean culture, where mourning is often a group activity with many complicated rituals and customs. Lee Ki Ho does a great job of capturing the nuances of these traditions and gives a deep and nuanced look at the role of mourning in Korean society. This Korean book also reflects on what grief is and how it can change our lives, and how we relate to other people.

Overall, “At Least We Can Apologize” is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that will resonate with readers.

8. Our Happy Time by Gong Ji Young

Our Happy Time on Amazon

What happened to Yujeong when she got sentenced to life?

Our Happy Time by Gong Ji Young is an oddly compelling book that tells the story of a young woman named Yujeong serving a life sentence for murder. In prison, she meets a suicidal man named Yunsu, and the two form an unlikely bond as they struggle to come to terms with their pasts and the challenges of their present circumstances.

Through flashbacks, we see the events that led up to Yujeong’s crime and how her experiences have shaped her.

The book is both a meditation on guilt and redemption and a powerful critique of the Korean justice system and its treatment of prisoners.

9. Tower by Bae Myung Hoon

Modern Korean Books

Tower on Amazon

Long short stories is a highly imaginative and thought-provoking book that explores the lives of inhabitants living in a massive 500-story tower. The tower is a sovereign state divided into different sections, each with its unique culture, rules, and social hierarchy.

The stories in Tower by Bae Myung Hoon are interconnected, and the characters’ lives are intertwined in various ways. The book highlights the stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between the residents of different tower floors.

The lower levels are cramped, overcrowded, and often dangerous, with residents struggling to survive in squalid conditions. They suffer from poverty and are often at the mercy of influential individuals and groups who exploit their helplessness. In contrast, the higher levels are spacious, luxurious, and exclusive, with the residents enjoying the best of everything the tower offers.

The book is a satirical commentary on modern society, with the tower serving as a metaphor for our world. It highlights the vast inequalities in our society and how those in power exploit those who are powerless.

10. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Seon Mi

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly on Amazon

The book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Seon Mi is about a hen named Sprout who wants to hatch her egg and raise a chick. But since Sprout lives in a corral, his dreams don’t seem possible. She is just a simple chicken, and many things are in the way of her dream.

Despite how hard things get, Sprout never gives up on her dream. When she gets the chance to leave the corral and live in the wild, she jumps at the event, determined to make her dreams come true. Along the way, Sprout meets many different animals. One of them, a duck, becomes her best friend and biggest supporter. The characters are also well-made, with each one adding something unique and memorable to the story.

Overall, “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly” is a book anyone wanting to learn more about Korean literature should read. It’s a sweet and heartwarming story that will appeal to readers of all ages and gives a unique and exciting look at what it’s like to be human.

10 Korean Books | To Summarize

If you are interested in Korean literature, there are many great books to explore.

Above are 10 of the best Korean books that are sure to captivate and engage you!

These books offer a rich and varied perspective on Korean culture and history and will leave a lasting impression.

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