The best books about Hell Chosŏn

Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton Author Of Mina
By Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

Who are we?

A couple who have been claimed by Korea—Bruce as a US Peace Corps volunteer there and Ju-Chan as a native Korean and an English teacher—and its culture, society, history, and especially literary heritage. We have been translating modern Korean fiction into English since 1980. Bruce was fated to become involved with Korean literature by virtue of being born on October 9, the day in 1446 when Great King Sejong promulgated (officially announced) the creation of the Korean alphabet, hangŭl, to the people of Korea.

We wrote...


By Kim Sagwa, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (translator),

Book cover of Mina

What is our book about?

A novel about the love-hate relationship between two high school girls, penned by the author who best understands the rage that permeates Hell Chosŏn—the underside of the South Korean Economic Miracle, evidenced by the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries; a negative birthrate; and a divorce rate hovering at 30 percent. (Chosŏn is the name of the most recent monarchy to rule the Korean Peninsula—from 1392 to 1910.)

The books we picked & why

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One Left

By Kim Soom, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (translator),

Book cover of One Left

Why this book?

Millions of victims of man-made historical disasters await rediscovery from the murky corners of history to which they have been consigned. One Left returns to historical memory the 200,000-plus Korean girls who were taken from their home villages during World War Two to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military in “comfort stations.” The end of this disturbing novel is brilliant: the protagonist reclaims her identity, and by extension that of each of the “comfort women,” by recalling the name given her at birth—a name she has not used in the 70 years since she returned to her homeland after years of sexual servitude.

The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women

By Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (translator),

Book cover of The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women

Why this book?

In the neo-Confucian society of Chosŏn Korea, women were the keepers of the inner quarters and were discouraged from pursuing literacy and education. Such gender-role expectations have persisted so strongly in modern Korea that only in recent decades have women fiction writers achieved parity with their male counterparts. We are fortunate to know, or have known, almost all the writers represented in this anthology and to share their creative vision.

The Guest

By Hwang Sok-yong, Kyung-Ja Chun (translator), Maya West (translator)

Book cover of The Guest

Why this book?

In The Guest we hear the voices of the victims of a massacre that took place shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, a massacre blamed on the UN (mostly American) military but actually perpetrated by Koreans on Koreans. To allow us access to the stories of these victims the author uses a ritual in which a practitioner of native Korean spirituality channels the voices of those who have died an unnatural or premature death and who continue to wander in the ether until they are able to communicate their stories to those of us still living. Only then can they find closure and settle in the hereafter.

The Long Season of Rain

By Helen Kim,

Book cover of The Long Season of Rain

Why this book?

The Long Season of Rain (the title refers to the monsoons that afflict the Korean Peninsula at the start of summer) reminds us that in Hell Chosŏn women remain subservient to men in almost every sphere of society, and learn early on to endure silently instead of speaking out. This novel exemplifies the richness of Korean-American young-adult novels, which often focus on coming of age and the quest for identity. Especially poignant is the author’s use of a naïve narrator, the daughter of a woman who learns that her husband has taken a concubine.

The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

By Euny Hong,

Book cover of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

Why this book?

At a time when academics tend to look down their noses at Korean popular culture (Hallyu, literally “the Korean wave”), which in recent years is driving popular culture worldwide, The Birth of Korean Cool is a refreshing analysis based on the supposition that Korea is finally “getting even” with the rest of the world for being underappreciated for thousands of years.

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