Koreanist Book Club: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 book cover

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo is a very controversial book in South Korea. Some K-pop fans set photos on fire over a female idol member talking about having read it. It has also sold more than a million copies, which is rare in Korean publishing market. It was translated into Japanese, which lead angry Korean men to leave poorly Google translated reviews on Amazon Japan.

It is accused of being divisive and even misandrist, when all it really does is illustrate an average Korean woman’s life. Men seem to think that the author intentionally put together a series of unfortunate events in order to play the victim, but that is really not the case. In fact, many Korean women will tell you that Kim Jiyoung doesn’t even have it that bad. And that is entirely the point of this book. That women whose lives aren’t particularly troubled are still weighed down by misogyny and patriarchy.

While this book is a work of fiction, it has many footnotes that point to statistics or research publications that corroborate the things that happen or are mentioned in the story. It is honest and for the most part, calm. The fact that (some) Korean men think Jiyoung’s life is unlikely misfortunes deceptively woven together, rather than seeing it as it is, a natural course of events in a system geared against women, just goes to show how removed from women’s reality they are, and how unwilling they are to admit it.

The only part that seems a little contrived is the ending. The psychiatrist seemingly understands the plight of Jiyoung and his wife, yet decides that since his employee leaving work to have a baby is an inconvenience to him, he should replace her with someone unmarried. But that is how the plight continues to plague women. Even those who do see the problem don’t take it upon themselves to break the cycle.

I am Kim Jihyun, born 1994, a dozen years after Jiyoung. Yet I have personally witnessed and lived through much of the same things that Jiyoung experienced. Time may have changed little things here and there, but the overall frame of misogyny is still standing. But my own life and experience will have to be another post. All I will say here is that being a woman is an exhausting continuum of impossible decisions.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is widely acclaimed as a “feminist” novel, but in my opinion, it is way too moderate to be considered a feminist work of literature. Instead, I think it is hyperrealist. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is a powerful summary of most millennial Korean women’s lived experiences. That is why it was so successful, because so many women identified with it.

If you want to understand what it is like to grow up as a girl, go through life as a woman and become a mother in Korea, you will find that nothing (other than actually being a Korean woman) is more effective than reading this book. At $9 (for an ebook) and less than 3 hours of reading time, that seems like a bargain.


Share your thoughts about the book and this article in the comments!

July book is The Vegetarian by Han Kang. See you next month!

By Jihyun Kim

Jihyun Kim is the founder of The Koreanist. She is an undergraduate student at Konkuk University.

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