In October 2016 the Korean publishing house Minumsa released a short novel called Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, the latest in a series of works of fiction by “today’s young writers.” The author is a former television scriptwriter, Cho Nam-joo, born in 1978, who had published well-received short stories. She wrote the novel in two months, inspired by her favorite English-language writer, Rebecca Solnit, and maddened by the turns her own life had taken as a Korean woman and the treatment she faced as a new mother. One day, while taking a coffee break with her baby, she heard male passersby refer to her as 맘충, or “mom-worm,” a nasty epithet for mothers who have the gall to leave their homes.
The name in the book’s title, “Kim Ji-young,” is the Korean equivalent of “Jane Doe,” an everywoman. The novel has sold a million copies, one for every fifty people in South Korea. It’s been touted by celebrities and was given to President Moon Jae-in by another prominent politician. There are plans to translate it into eighteen languages, including English (the Japanese version quickly became a best seller), and it will soon be turned into a film. Park Hye-jin, the editor at Minumsa who acquired Kim Ji-young, told me that the novel’s virtue lies in its broad social impact. It promises that “if we speak up, even quietly,” she said, “these issues won’t revert back to being individual problems.”
Several fiction writers I spoke with called the book “middling” and “uninteresting” as literature, yet its very accessibility may be its source of power for many readers. The diction is simple, the writing artless; the world of the novel, told in a basic third-person voice, claustrophobic. To read the book is to imagine being a restive, aggrieved millennial and to trace her path through everyday misogyny.
It is curious that a book not primarily focused on sexual violence has become a cultural touchstone for Korea’s version of the Me Too movement. But the local activism grouped under the American label of Me Too must be understood as a total rebellion against deeply patriarchal, Confucian structures that, in the digital era, have found cruel new forms.
In 2015, two years before the Harvey Weinstein revelations in the US, a police crackdown on Soranet, an illicit porn site, forced Koreans to confront a terrible reality. Porn is illegal in Korea, and thus exchanged through underground networks—this was nothing new—but consumers were now downloading countless images of women and girls that had been obtained secretly, without their consent. Revenge porn and footage from spy cameras in women’s bathrooms and changing rooms were being streamed on smartphones and bought and sold on various websites, on a scale few had previously understood. In 2004, in response to an earlier epidemic of Peeping Tom photography, the government had banned…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.