On national literature and the division system
One of the most esteemed public intellectuals active in South Korea for the last four decades at least, Paik Nak-chung is known as the author of two seminal theories, one on the concept of ‘national literature’ (minjok munhak), and the other on the subject of the ‘division system’ (pundan ch’eje). If the former was an attempt to articulate a cultural aesthetics capable of responding critically to the contemporary social reality of the 1970s in South Korea, the latter adopted a political systems theory to comprehend the task of Korean unification beyond the Cold War framework. The overtly literary theory and the overtly political theory share, however, a common premise and basic structure. Both theories posit a central relationship among three key terms, and both triadic relationships are marked by an internal tension that is constant and dynamic. Division System Theory, in fact, must be seen as an heir to the earlier National Literature Theory, with the central triadic relationship modified to bear the weight of a different, more expansive set of terms.
The continuity between the two theories becomes visible when one examines the way Paik Nak-chung deploys the concept of realism. For Paik, realism is not, as some postmodernists would argue, a doctrinaire prescription for reaffirming predetermined ‘right answers’. Rather, realism’s ‘truth value’ can never transcend the specificity of a particular time and space, and its determination necessitates a ‘(sense of) balance’ acquired through apprehending reality creatively. Applied to the particularly complex reality called the division system, Paik’s theory of realism allows the task of unification to be grasped as an ‘open structure’. Such a conceptualization, in the end, makes it possible to approach the process of unification itself as a kind of ‘literary work’ or ‘artistic creation’ in the making.
Keywords: Paik Nak-chung, national literature, division system, realism, a sense of balance
Ryu Junpil studied as an undergraduate and graduate student at Seoul National University (Korea), from where he received Ph.D. in Korean classical literature in 1998. From 2001 to 2010, he served as a research professor at the Academy of East Asian Studies at Sungkyunkwan University. He is currently a professor at the Center for Korean Studies at Inha University. His main academic interests include Korean literature and East Asian culture.