The Hallyu Wave (or Korean Wave) has been a part of western culture for at least a decade now, but I think we can all agree that recently it has become even bigger. With BTS dominating the charts and award shows, to K-dramas becoming the It Shows of the moment, there’s been more eyes than ever on Korea. That includes books set in Korea.
I’ve written a few times about my experience learning to love and accept my Korean roots, but I think it definitely dawned on me while researching and writing this list of recommendations that a younger version of me would not have felt comfortable writing a piece like this. And it makes me so happy that I can love and appreciate all aspects of Korean culture now.
Now, I could give you Pachinko, Please Look After Mom, Wicked Fox, or Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, but I dug a little deeper for this list of books set in Korea to bring some titles that may be lesser known and need more love. This list is primarily adult fiction titles, but I’ve also thrown in some horror, sci-fi, nonfiction, and YA books in here as well. And because Korea is more than just South Korea, I’ve also got some books on here that take place in North Korea and/or are North Korean authors, specifically.
Sound good? Daebak! Let’s dive into this book list.
Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
Young is a student living in Seoul who is taking full advantage of the freedom of living on his own and being able to live his life. He and his best friend, Jaehee, bond over their love for excitement and pushing away their worries about the future. But it’s when Jaehee leaves him to settle down that Young is forced to look at his life and the relationships he’s managed to create with a series of random men from Tinder dates. I’m so excited to see more LGBTQIA+ representation in Korean novels.
The Plotters by Kim Un-su
In this suspenseful crime novel, we are introduced to a professional underground assassin who works for a group of notoriously anonymous kingpins aka Plotters. Reseng has never questioned his work as an assassin…until now. When Reseng goes outside of his jurisdiction during a job, he sets off a series of events that will force him to take control of his decisions or continue to obey the Plotters.
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
Told over the course of a single day, this book chronicles Ayami’s last day at her box office job. She spends her night wandering around Seoul with her former boss and a culmination of events leads them to picking up a German writer from the airport. Ayami then spends the day conversing with the poet. Now I know this premise might not seem the most interesting — but trust me here. Things get trippy. You’re not going to know what’s real and what’s not. Buckle up for a nonlinear and bumpy ride.
The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Han
This book takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II with Japan’s withdrawal and the U.S. occupation. When Junja makes a trip to the mountains for the first time, she meets and fall in love with Suwol. Not wanting to leave him, she stays an extra day and that decision changes her life forever. Her mother is killed performing a job that belonged to Junja and this event tears her family apart. Now without her family and without Suwol, Junja must learn how to survive in her new reality.
Tongue by Jo Kyung-ran
After a long-term relationship ends, Jung Ji-won tumbles into a deep depression. She shuts down her cooking school and loses complete interest in food — for eating, for cooking — and even loses her sense of taste. Looking to rebuild her life, Ji-won returns to the restaurant where she got her start and slowly rediscovers her appreciation for the culinary arts…and for revenge.
The Hole by Pyun Hye-young
Packing a serious punch in under 200 pages, this book walks the line of literary horror and psychological thriller. When Ogi wakes unable to speak or move, he’s told that he has survived a horrific car accident that has killed his wife and left him paralyzed and mute. Upon release from the hospital, he finds himself in the care of his mother-in-law who fires his home nurse and moves in herself, often neglecting his needs and leaving him bedridden. When he’s able to get around the house, it’s then he notices the large holes that the MIL has been digging in his front yard in the garden that his wife had loved.
The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong
When Yu-jin wakes one morning to a missed call from his mother, he doesn’t think twice. That is until he discovers her murdered body at the bottom of the stairs. What makes it even worse, Yu-jin has zero memories of the night before — which isn’t a rare occurrence — Yu-jin has suffered from seizures for most of his life and is used to having gaps in his memory. This leads Yu-jin on a journey to figure out exactly what happened that night and if he has anything to do with his mother’s untimely demise.
At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho
Starting in a place only known as the Institution, we meet Jin-man and Si-bong. Together they soon realize that constant apologizing for their actions is met with praise, so much so that they when they leave the Institution, they make it into a business. Jin-man and Si-bong build their careers on apologizing for other people’s wrong doings, where they are hired by others to apologize to others. As time progresses, the two begin to realize that an apology means nothing without behavior change and that they may be doing more harm than good.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Cha’s debut is all about South Korean culture and the relentless journey many women embark on to achieve the impossibly high beauty standards, focusing on how they relate and fit within South Korea’s social hierarchy. All of the women have unique and incredible stories, including Kyuri, whose numerous surgeries have granted her a cushy job at a room salon, and Sujin, who finally gets the surgeries she desperately wanted only to face a long and painful recovery.
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha
Our narrator is a man who works with clients who are suicidal. But instead of convincing them not to, he’s there to help them find the best way to do it. In the side plot, we meet brothers, C and K, both of whom are in love with the same woman. These two stories converge when the narrator takes a trip to Prague and begins an affair with a woman he meets at a museum. As you can expect, obvious trigger warning here for suicide and suicide ideation.
My Brilliant Life by Ae-Ran Kim
Areum is born with a rare condition known as progeria, which causes rapid aging. His parents are both teenagers who were unprepared for children, let alone for one with special needs. As Areum continues to age, he is the one who teaches his parents and everyone around him about the importance of living life to its fullest and having regrets.
Friend: A Novel From North Korea by Paek Nam-Nyong
This book is set in North Korea by a writer who grew up and has continued to live in North Korea. In fact, it’s the first state-sanctioned novel to be translated into English. Paek makes no mention or illusion to the government or their leader, instead choosing to focus on the lives of the North Korean citizens, going through the same things as the rest of the world. Our main character is going through the process of divorce, chronicling how the couple met, fell in love, and how their relationships deteriorated.
In Suki Kim’s memoir, she recalls her experience of teaching English in North Korea during the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign. Her class is full of the sons of the ruling class and Suki watches as they excel due to their societal privilege, and also their undying support and nationalism for their country. Just as Suki begins to give them glimpses of life outside of North Korea’s territory, Kim Jong-il dies and her students are devastated.
Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh
The first in a duology, this book takes place in the Neo State of Korea in the aftermath of a great war. Jaewon is an ex-gang member turned schoolboy who has been swiftly climbing the ranks in his academy. The son of a rebel father raised on the streets of Old Seoul, Jaewon is determined to make a name for himself. When Jaewon is recruited by the Director of the Neo State into a lucrative weapons development division, he becomes of the partner of Tera, a robot test subject and his loyalty begins to shift.
b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa
In this coming-of-age novel, best friends b and Rang stand out from their classmates and even their town. In a town that wishes it was Seoul full with people who want to live in Seoul, b and Rang couldn’t be bothered. It seems like it’s the two of them against the world. But then Rang writes a poem in dedication to b, her best friend. And b doesn’t like it. The two go their separate ways, and eventually meet again through a new friend named Book, who helps them find each other and rekindle their friendship.
K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee
Candace Park is a quiet Korean girl living in America, who dreams of becoming a K-pop idol. She secretly enters a global audition and is shocked when she is accepted into their prestigious trainee program. But convincing her parents to let her move to Korea is only the beginning of Candace’s problems. The trainee program is even more grueling than she imagined and the dating ban becomes even harder to abide when she meets one of the boy trainees.
Interested in more books set in the Land of Morning Calm and/or by Korean authors? We’ve got you: