With the rising popularity of Korean entertainment, food, and culture, it’s no surprise that books about Korea are getting more attention. Korean literature offers insight into the striking transformation of the Korean peninsula.
Some of the most popular Korean authors have become dominant literary forces. Their books let us travel, albeit through time, and give readers a way to understand the past and present life in North and South Korea.
This list compiles the best Korean books in English – timeless Korean books, contemporary Korean novels, and the best books set in Korea. Although not for light reading, these books will definitely expand your reading horizons.
Books about Korean history
Chinese colonization, warring kingdoms, Japanese rule, and the Korean war make for a rich, tumultuous history. While South Korea has risen from the ashes to become the economic and cultural force that it is today, North Korea remains an enigma.
These books about Korea give a deeper understanding of this turbulent but colorful past. If you’re a history nerd like me, you will love these books.
1. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (2005)
Set in Hwanghae, North Korea, The Guest is one of the most harrowing books about Korean War. It is a vivid portrait of the Sinchon Massacre that happened between October 17 to December 7, 1950.
The Guest tells the story of a preacher, Ryu Yosop, visiting his childhood village. It is later revealed that the gruesome massacre wasn’t committed by Americans, as North Korean sources claim. In truth, Korean Christians fleeing toward South Korea perpetrated the massacre.
2. Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood by Richard E. Kim (1971)
Korea was under Japanese rule between 1910 and 1945. During this time, colonizers forced Koreans to renounce their names and adopt Japanese names. Lost Names is Richard Kim’s autobiography about this dark period in Korea.
Filled with imagery, Lost Names is one of the most emotional books about Korea and the Japanese regime. A touching memory of childhood, family, and repressed Korea in the 1930s, this is ultimately a story of resilience and survival.
3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
No list of books about Korean is complete without Pachinko, the second novel of Korean-American author Min Jin Lee. This epic historical novel, named after a Japanese arcade game, won several literary awards and remains one of the best Korean books.
Pachinko follows the life of Sunja who falls for a wealthy and powerful stranger and gets pregnant. She discovers that her lover is married. Luckily, a gentle Christian minister offers to marry her and take her to Japan.
In Japan, Sunja raises a family and endures the hardships of war, poverty, and discrimination against Koreans. Documenting four generations of a Korean family from 1910 to 1989, Pachinko is profoundly moving and eye-opening.
4. Human Acts by Han Kang (2014)
Han Kang, one of the finest authors in Korea, shot to fame when her novel The Vegetarian won the Booker International Prize 2016. Human Acts, also an award-winning bestseller, delivers the same magnificent writing.
One of the most gripping books about Korea, Human Acts tells the story of the violent 1980 Gwangju Uprising. In the midst of this uprising, a 15-year-old boy is killed. A series of tragic tales from different perspectives follow.
Human Acts is not for the faint of heart. But as Han is a Gwangju native herself, she bears witness to the atrocities of this period in Korea. Expect no sugarcoating and plenty to think about after reading this.
Books about North Korea
Despite becoming a visible and important figure in international politics, North Korea remains a hermit kingdom. These books offer literary portraits of the world’s deadliest state.
5. A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa (2018)
A memoir written by Korean-Japanese Masaji Ishikawa, A River in Darkness is one of the most heartbreaking books about North Korea.
Born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father in 1947, Masaji’s family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old. Life in North Korea is hard enough but as he’s part Japanese, his family’s treatment was even worse.
A recounting of Masaji’s brutal and tumultuous life in both North Korea and Japan, readers must prepare to be crushed and even angry while reading this memoir.
6. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)
It’s surprising that the author of this Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling novel is an American. But it’s even more stunning when you find out that Adam Johnson stayed in North Korea for only five days.
Johnson captured a convincing and engrossing picture of the elusive North Korea. Although fictional, this book reads like a memoir.
The Orphan Master’s Son follows Pak Jun Do, a soldier turned kidnapper turned surveillance officer. He tries to stay alive and save the woman he loves as he slowly makes his way through government bureaucracy.
7. Friend: A Novel from North Korea by Paek Nam-nyong (1988)
What sets Friend apart from other books in this list is that it’s a North Korean novel, set in North Korea, written by a North Korean author who continues to live and write in North Korea.
Friend, listed as one of Best World Literature of 2020 by the Library Journal, contains no propaganda either. It is simply a story of a young couple on the brink of divorce, and an ordinary family living an ordinary life in modern-day North Korea.
8. Without You There is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (2014)
In 2011, Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary and teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). She taught English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-Il’s reign.
Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Without You There is No Us shows glimpses of her students’ private, boyish, eager, curious selves.
Books about South Korea
The world is a witness to South Korean miracle. The Land of the Morning Calm becomes an even more fascinating subject when observed from these multifaceted books about Korea.
9. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim (1996)
Set in fast-paced, modern Seoul, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a tense story of two brothers who fell in love with the same woman. A nameless narrator helps them find escape and relief through suicide.
This is Young-Ha Kim’s first novel and it is beautifully written. It is bold, dark, and one of the most cinematic books about Korea.
10. White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht (2018)
Following two sisters separated by World War II, White Chrysanthemum is among the most moving books about Korea. Like most books in this list, it is not an easy read but definitely worth your time.
Hana and her little sister Emi are part of a community of haenyo, women divers. Hana saves Emi from a Japanese soldier, allowing herself to be captured. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” in a Japanese military brothel.
Moving between Hana in 1943 Japan and Emi in 2011 South Korea, White Chrysanthemum is a tale of strength, redemption, and a love strong enough to triumph over the evils of war.
11. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (2017)
Written by one of South Korea’s most prestigious novelists, At Dusk follows Park Minwoo, a rags-to-riches architect. His company gets investigated for corruption. At the same time, he receives a message from a woman he once loved and betrayed.
He looks back on his life and the world he abandoned to get where he is. A gentle yet politically charged examination of life in Korea, At Dusk is storytelling at its finest.
12. Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2020)
Untold Night and Day tells the story of 28-year-old Ayami, a young actress who loses her job at a theatre. The whole novel takes place over the course of a summer night and a day in Seoul.
Aptly described as a fever dream, this book blurs the lines of time, space, and reality. Trippy, disorienting, and at times disturbing, this book is best read in one sitting.
Bestselling Korean novels
Although inconclusive, this short list of Korean bestsellers includes books by Korean authors who have made a mark not just in Korea but internationally.
13. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007)
Han Kang’s award-winning novel, The Vegetarian, is set in modern-day Seoul. It depicts the story of Yeong-hye, a part-time graphic artist who begins having nightmares of blood and carnage. This drives her to renounce eating meat.
Vegetarianism is considered odd behavior and soon, her family tries to get her into submission.
Dark and unsettling but fascinating, this 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner is a tale of individualistic struggle against social conventions.
14. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (2008)
Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize and selling a million copies within 10 months of release, Please Look After Mom is one of the most famous contemporary books in Korea.
Sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband on the busy Seoul subway station. Her husband and children reminisce about her life as they desperately search for her.
Piercing and a breathtaking, Please Look After Mom is a must-read.
15. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (2016)
Despite its economic and technological advancements, South Korea, like in the rest of the world, gender discrimination is still rampant.
International bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 tells the story of a millennial woman living in Seoul. After quitting her job to care for her newborn daughter, she begins to exhibit strange symptoms. This alarms her husband, forcing him to send her to a psychiatrist.
Kim Jiyoung was one of the most popular Korean names for girls born in the 1980s. And as she recounts a life defined by misogyny and sexism, it soon becomes apparent that Kim Jiyoung represents every woman in Korea.
At times cold, often unapologetic, this novel is one of the most captivating books about Korea. It is a riveting depiction of life for women in Korea, as well as depression.
16. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang (2001)
Often touted as the Korean Charlotte’s Web, this bestselling Korean book tells the story of a hen named Sprout. She is forced to lay eggs that will never hatch because they are to be sold at market. She soon dreams of having a chick of her own.
This plucky, spirited heroine underscores courage, individuality, and motherhood. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is lighthearted compared to others in this list. But make no mistake, it is an unforgettable work of art.
Korean poetry books
Traditional Korean poetry was often sung in performance. Until the 20th century, many Korean poets wrote in Hanja (Chinese).
Poetry is popular in Korea to this day. It is very much an essential part of Korean life and regarded as a form of high art.
17. Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1960-2002 by Ko Un (2009)
Ko Un is recognized as the greatest living Korean poet, churning out poem after poem over the years. A novelist and political activist, his works offer insight into his political stances and into South Korean history itself.
Songs for Tomorrow compiles poems covering four decades. One of the best books about Korea, it also reveals the transformations in his writing style.
Poetry, written in Chinese, was an important discipline for Confucian scholars. Spanning over a thousand years, the poems in Among the Flowering Reeds were an integral part of Korean literature.
Kim Jong-gil, an honorary professor of English literature and poet, translated a hundred poems. The collection captures the ‘elegant simplicity and emotional complexity’ of the original poems.
19. No Flower Blooms Without Wavering by Jong-Hwan Do (2012)
An award-winning Korean poet, Do Jong-hwan found solace in poetry after losing his wife to illness. His poems hint at grief, pain, anger, and deep sadness. But he also portrays hope and encouragement as he describes the beauty in nature.
No Flower Blooms Without Wavering was published in Hangul in 2012 and translated by Brother Anthony, translator and President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, in 2016. A truly inspiring work.
Short story collections by Korean authors
Short story collections are great for readers who lack the time to engage in novels. These couple of collections are notable choices.
20. Drifting House by Krys Lee (2012)
Krys Lee was born in Seoul and raised in California and Washington. In her stunning fiction debut, she tells nine stories set in Korea and the US, spanning the postwar era to present times.
Drifting House looks into the lives of the salarymen of Seoul, starving children in North Korea, and immigrants trying to acclimatize in America. Emotional and disturbing, you won’t soon forget these stories.
21. Flowers of Mold by Seong-Nan Ha (1999)
Originally published in 1999 and translated in 2019 by Janet Hong, Flowers of Mold is a collection ten short stories.
Haunting and thought-provoking, these stories follow ordinary characters living mundane lives. It is this mundanity transformed into something strange and unexpected that makes Flowers of Mold a rave-worthy read.
Non-fiction books about Korea
While fiction books about Korea provide a vivid picture of the Korean psyche, nothing can be more accurate than non-fiction books.
Below are some of the works, both by Korean and non-Korean authors, which offer the real deal.
22. The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong (2014)
Ever wonder why Korean pop culture has become so popular in other parts of the world? Of course, you have. Euny Hong’s The Birth of Korean Cool answers this.
Informative, witty, and entertaining, Hong recounts South Korea’s transformation from uncool to pop culture powerhouse. Even if you’re not that interested in how South Korea remade itself, you will find this book enjoyable.
23. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park (2015)
Inspiring, edifying, and heartbreaking, In Order to Live is a testimony of a North Korean defector who lived through horrible experiences that few people of any age will ever know nor recover from.
Park escaped from North Korea in 2007 at age 13, not seeking freedom. She didn’t even know what freedom meant. She was just escaping death. Park and her mother were sold into sexual slavery in China before making their way to South Korea.
Now a leading spokesperson for human rights, Yeonmi Park’s extraordinary tale serves as an eye-opener and one of the most harrowing books about Korea.
24. The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation by Michael Breen (2017)
The New Koreans, like The Birth of Korean Cool, closes in on South Korea’s fascinating transformation. But while the latter focuses on pop culture, Michael Breen explores the economics, history, and politics of Korea.
This non-fiction book about Korea traces the country’s humble, poor beginnings to its prosperous present. Compelling and enlightening, The New Koreans will acquaint you better with Korea.
25. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (2009)
If you have to read only one book about North Korea, it has to be Barbara Demick’s award-winning Nothing to Envy.
Demick spent 15 years following six average North Korean citizens struggling for survival in the totalitarian nation. She also interviewed more than 100 defectors, all while covering important events like the famine of the 1990s and the effects of the 2009 currency reform.
A groundbreaking and eye-opening work, this is not just one of the best books about Korea. It is also one of the finest works in literary journalism.
That’s a wrap! The next time you’re in need of some Korean reads, you know your options. Happy reading!
And if you’re looking for reasons to visit Korea, go check out our list of things South Korea is famous for. If you feel like learning the language before hopping on a plane, you can also check out this list of resources to learn Korean.