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[Cover Feature] Real Estate Narratives in Korean Literature

by Roh Taehoon June 14, 2022

Real estate [budongsan (lit. “immovable property”) in Korean] is surely near the top of the list of concepts essential to describing Korean society. Koreans certainly have a finely developed sensibility when it comes to ownership of space, as is evident from the old Korean proverb, “If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomachache.” Historically speaking, it has always been common for the wealthy to be landed, or for them to convert their various tangible and intangible assets into land or buildings. Indeed, far from being unique to Korea, such is the norm in any capitalist society. What gives real estate in Korea its peculiarity, however, is that it is not just a matter of physical space and price; rather, it encompasses life, not as a means but as a goal in itself. 

The Japanese occupation of Korea [1910–1945] exacerbated land issues. Such problems existed prior to the occupation, of course, with the sharecropper-landowner system exemplifying the inequalities arising from the dominance of the owner class in Joseon society. However, land became even more of an absolute precondition to people’s existence with the seizing of land by the occupiers and the advent of twentieth-century capitalist industrialization. Thus, this period is characterized by both a strong urge to recover Korean land from its oppressors as well as rectifying inequalities surrounding land ownership that predated the occupation. A typical expression of the former would be Yi Sang-hwa’s poem “Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields” (1926), while novels such as Yeom Sang-seop’s Three Generations (1931), Chae Man-Sik’s Turbid Rivers (1937), and Pak Taewon’s Scenes from Chonggye Stream (1936) painted diverse portraits of the latter. 

After liberation in 1945, land became the arena of the most acute social conflict. Stolen land needed to be restored, so land reform measures were enforced to ensure a fair and equal redistribution, but the ruling class refused to relinquish its hold. The country was soon plunged into chaos again with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The ensuing strife over land, from the Korean War up to the industrialization of the country, is nowhere so well documented as in Pak Kyongni’s epic, Land (1969). This sprawling saga provides an overarching look at Korea’s modern history with its significant context of land and homes. As befitting its title, it recounts the travails and hardships on the way to recovering one’s land.

The 1960s’ influx of people to the capital city is well captured in Lee Ho-cheol’s Seoul is All Full (1966). This work brings to life the stories of those at the bottom of society fleeing the countryside to make a life for themselves in Seoul at whatever cost. The shanty towns and slums that grew from their illegally erected dwellings represent a complex real estate issue to this day, at odds with the demands for redevelopment and reconstruction, as immortalized in Cho Se-hee’s The Dwarf (1978). Its masterly portrayal of a dwarf and his family being forcefully evicted from their dwelling in the slums, fully exposing the class conflict and injustice, firmly establishes this novella as a classic in contemporary Korean literature. 

The 1970s saw the rise of the apartment as a new kind of dwelling in Korean society. With increasing numbers of people opting for such homogenized spaces, living in a standardized, mass-produced apartment rather than a more personalized space came to be considered a mark of urbane sophistication. In Choi In-ho’s “Another Man’s Room” (1971), a man returns from a business trip to find a false message from his wife and undergoes a surreal experience in his apartment, exemplifying the modern man as divested of individuality and free will, and reduced to a merely functional capacity. 

The term budongsan increasingly came to refer to land, buildings, and residential property—anything that did not fall under the category of “moveable property.” Massive development projects, mass migration, and construction of new cities gave birth to a new category of inferior housing in the form of gosiwon1 and “one-room” efficiency apartments, which began to be addressed in the works of writers such as Park Min-gyu and Kim Ae-ran in the 2000s. The real estate bubble and history of greed exemplified by Seoul’s Gangnam district is well represented in Hwang Sok-yong’s Gangnam Dream (2010). 

The subject of real estate in Korean literature has thus been given ample and diverse treatment over the past century. Given its inseparable ties to economic class and the political context, it is unsurprising that real estate has become a prominent backdrop for many other social issues. With real estate prices going through the roof in recent years coupled with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, real estate issues continue to feature prominently in Korean literature.

From dwellings such as banjiha,2  oktapbang,3  and gosiwon (collectively referred to as jiokgo,4 or “hellish agony”) to one-room, two-room, and three-room efficiencies; to tenement houses known as villas and mansions;5 and apartments with aspirational Western-style names [such as IPARK, Lotte Castle, Signiel, Trimage, Prugio and so on], the nomenclature of living spaces in Korea clearly illustrates their respective class distinctions. With one’s status and class directly linked to the name of one’s neighborhood and apartment, a distinction wide open to contempt and even bitter hatred, real estate has become a serious social issue in Korea and was a decisive factor in the outcome of the recent presidential elections. 

Skyrocketing prices ignited rage according to one’s respective position—those without housing along with single and multiple homeowners—as well as exacerbated intergenerational conflict. This only solidified the concept of housing not as a home, but as an investment. Coincidentally, the verb for “living” in a house (jibesanda”) in Korean is homonymous with the verb for “buying” a house (jibeulsanda”). Their conjugated forms differ, but surely the coincidence in the present form is too interesting to be overlooked. More and more, a house has become not a place to live, but a property to buy. 

Such contemporary real estate issues make frequent appearances in recent works of Korean literature. Not content to merely describe the shabby living conditions of young people, the subject of acquiring a house or of property changing hands often functions as major plot points. An entire spectrum of humanity is represented in these subjects, from young couples, newly married or planning to get married, to those raising or employed to look after children; older people looking for suitable dwellings after their retirement; and queer couples looking for a place to live together. 

Kim Hye-jin’s Fire and My Autobiography (Hyundae Munhak, 2020) represents the cumulation of the author’s interest in redevelopment issues in Korea. The impulse towards upward social mobility, as represented by the narrator’s parents’ generation and their eagerness to cast aside any class solidarity or local feeling in favor of being re-zoned and incorporated into a more desirable neighborhood, finds a razor-sharp depiction in this book. Far from relying on sentimentalism or nostalgia concerning the old and the decrepit, the author skewers how the characters’ neighborhood and homes come to represent not only their identity and class, but also their very ability to survive and better themselves. Arbitrary lines drawn by administrative districts become inextricably linked with the characters’ sense of self and lived experience, leading to more lines being drawn between those living within those boundaries. There are original, long-time residents; speculators sitting on their investments, waiting to flip them for a profit; and those living as tenants in such properties. These inhabitants weave a tangled web of desires in which each goes about their own precarious existence. 

If Kim Hye-jin’s novel paints an unflinching portrait of the familiar subject of redevelopment from a contemporary standpoint, Cho Nam-ju’s Seoyeong-dong Stories (Hankyoreh Publishing, 2022) takes an overall approach to ongoing real estate issues, with a focus on apartments in particular. This essay has briefly touched upon the perception of real estate in the Korean context, but it is the apartment that lies at the heart of such issues. 

By far the most common and preferred form of housing in Korea, apartments dominate practically all real estate issues. The chief concern of redevelopment or reconstruction projects, for instance, is to build new, up-to-date apartment complexes, with apartments accounting for the majority of presale homes as well as homes for sale or rent. Descriptors ranking the desirability of apartments have coined a startling array of neologisms, with the ubiquitous “yeok-se-gwon” (within walking distance of a subway station) spawning “seu-se-gwon” (within walking distance of a Starbucks) or whatever amenity is considered worthy of advertisement; not to mention such portmanteaus as cho-pum-a (an apartment right next to an elementary school [chodeung hakgyo]), joong-pum-a (next to a middle school [joong hakgyo]), and endless other variations. 

The Seoyeong-dong neighborhood, depicted by Cho Nam-ju in a series of linked stories, represents an archetype of nearly all living spaces outside of Seoul’s city center. Recognizable to any Korean living in an urban setting, its trimmings conjure up the image of “neighborhood” common to most minds, where names like Dong-A, Hyundai, Woosung, and Daerim reflect the companies that built such apartments in the 1980s and 1990s, and with all the schools, hagwons,6  parks, subway stations, bus stops, and various amenities surrounding them. The author captures the emotional repercussions when such an ordinary-looking neighborhood is rocked by fluctuating housing prices.

The characters of these stories are champions of their neighborhood, willing to tell anyone who will listen that their area is undervalued. Interestingly, said characters conflate real estate value with honest labor, as something attainable by saving and scraping. The value of an apartment complex with thousands of residents can hardly be increased by the efforts or skills of a few people. Real estate values fluctuate in minute quantities, depending on the willingness of policymakers to invest in infrastructure, on the economy in general, and various macroeconomic factors. To equate one’s self-worth with that of an apartment, however, is to surrender to the thrall of real estate values and property rights, to succumb to self-interest and avarice. 

The linked stories of Seoyeong-dong Stories provide room for a varied cast of characters. There are those who cannot wait for prices to go up, as well as those who stand by, in equal amounts appalled and apathetic. There is the struggling young couple who makes a bold investment by swapping apartments, a move that pays off handsomely, except that they suffer from inordinate noise from their neighbors in their new apartment; a woman who has purchased an apartment and observes her father, who has found employment as a guard in the building facing hers, suffering abuse at the hands of other owners; and a character that vehemently opposes the construction of an assisted living residence for the elderly before being forced to change her mind after their own mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, among others. The author does not defend or outright condemn these Korean attitudes toward real estate. The last story of the book is “Allie's Adventures in Wonderland,” where the protagonist, Ayoung, is about to be kicked out of her home by redevelopers in the only area she can afford to live, having barely scraped together the five million won necessary for the security deposit. There are no opportunities for people like Ayoung, no matter how hard they work; in the end, Ayoung avoids being turned out on the street thanks to the kindness of the head teacher at the hagwon where she works under an irregular contract as an assistant English teacher.

After devoting so much space to the desires and habits of apartment dwellers, the decision to end the book with the housing struggles faced by a woman in her thirties may strike the reader as an odd choice. However, it seems this is where the crux of the stories lies. With no place to stay, Ayoung is driven to a gosiwon. On the way there, she reads an article about how young people in their twenties and thirties are taking out crippling mortgages to buy apartments in the greater Seoul area. What could possibly bridge the chasm between thirty-somethings like Ayoung, and others who all but sign their souls away to panic-buy apartments? Cho reveals, in the author’s note, how “deeply ashamed and difficult” she found it to write these stories. Certainly, if shame is the overwhelming reaction to the housing and spaces occupied by members of a society, one would be hard-pressed to claim that society functions as a community in any sense of the word. 

The issue of real estate in Korean society is certain to remain a contentious one in the foreseeable future. Korean literature will doubtless find ever more creative ways to examine this issue. Real estate and housing are firmly rooted in space, an unavoidable subject in the construction of any background and characters when it comes to the novel, in particular. Whether real estate and apartments continue to occupy their current position as objects of investment or speculation remains to be seen, as this author looks forward to the creative ways in which Korean literature will address the subject of home ownership in the future. 


1     Cubicle-sized accommodation favored bythose studying for public service exams or those unable to afford otherhousing.

2     Semi-basement dwellings as seen in BongJun-ho’s Parasite.

3 Rooftoprooms, usually made by illegally converting rooftop spaces of low-incomehousing.

4     ji-ok-go: ji from jiha(basement) in banjiha, ok from oktapbang, go from goiswonforming a homonym of jiokgo or ″hellish agony.″

5      In Korea, unlike in theWest, villas and mansionsrefer to smaller, older residences that are usually four stories tall.

6     Cramschools, but also any kind of private school offering classes such as music,art, sports, etc.


Translated by Yoonna Cho

Illustration ©Chulmin Yi

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