Made in (South) Korea: How Preserving Tradition Led to K-Lit

Jenny Wang Medina, Ph.D.
Columbia University

The construction of “global” Korean literature and culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries sought to transcend the geographic boundaries of South Korea while simultaneously attempting to reformulate an historical ethnonational identity across the divided peninsula. Millennial South Korea was a period during which state, institutional, and individual actors intervened and clashed over the production and transmission of this geographically unbounded “national” literature and culture. Extending my previous research on the tensions involved in defining a national Korean literature that aspired to recognition as a dominant “World Literature,” this paper examines the shift from extra-national organizations such as UNESCO to national organizations like the Daesan Foundation and the Korean Literature Translation Institute (KLTI) in shaping the parameters of Korean culture writ large in the Republic of Korea. The hierarchies established in the idea of “World Literature” are imbricated in the developmental and racial hierarchies of the post-WWII World Order, and South Korea’s involvement with UNESCO cultural projects as the country moved from an impoverished post-colonial nation to a model of rapid economic development in the latter half of the twentieth century exposes productive fissures in the tiered conception of global culture that emerged in that period. By focusing on the efforts made to preserve, and later promote Korean literature and literary scholarship, I explore the concerns over hyper-development, cultural parity, and new modes of inclusion and exclusion in the (re-)construction of culture as an instrument of neo-colonial participation in the Cold War era and sub-imperial yearnings in the 21st century.

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