Before traveling, I always recommend travelers look beyond the Top 10 Lists or bucket list items and read books from another culture to better immerse yourself into the culture and traditions of that place. While guidebooks and travel blogs provide valuable insight into the practice aspects of travel, they often fail to capture the essence of a culture. Reading the local literature, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry, diving into the literary works of a country before visiting can offer an unparalleled understanding of its history, people, customs, and beliefs.
By exploring the pages written by authors deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, travelers can enrich their experiences and forge deeper connections with the places they visit. If you’re planning a trip to South Korea, immersing yourself in literary traditions from the roots of folk tales, the depictions of ordinary people, exploring individual freedoms, and the tensions between older and younger generations, along with its history can provide valuable insights into its society, customs, and values.
Whether you’re an avid reader, or simply interested in learning about your journey before it begins, here is a curated list of books to read before visiting South Korea that will transport you to South Korea’s past and present while enriching your visit with knowledge and a deeper appreciation for all you see and do.
If you want to bring your books on vacation with you, a Kindle is essential. With a Kindle Unlimited Subscription, you could get the majority of these titles at a much lower price than buying them individually.
Check out my South Korea Travel page to see more info on visiting Korea.
THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ THE DISCLAIMER FOR MORE INFO
Amid a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.
Park Minwoo is, by every measure, a success story. Born into poverty in a miserable neighborhood of Seoul, he has ridden the wave of development in a rapidly modernizing society. Now the director of a large architectural firm, his hard work and ambition have brought him triumph and satisfaction. But when his company is investigated for corruption, he’s forced to reconsider his role in the transformation of his country.
At the same time, he receives an unexpected message from an old friend, Cha Soona, a woman that he had once loved, and then betrayed. As memories return unbidden, Minwoo recalls a world he thought had been left behind―a world he now understands that he has helped to destroy.From one of Korea’s most renowned and respected authors, At Dusk is a gentle yet urgent tale about the things, and the people, that we abandon in our never-ending quest to move forward.
If you happen to be in Seoul, check out my post on the best English bookstores in the city.
Set in Korea and the United States from the postwar era to contemporary times, Krys Lee’s stunning fiction debut illuminates a people struggling to reconcile the turmoil of their collective past with the rewards and challenges of their present. Amid the famine in North Korea, the financial crisis of South Korea, and the cramped apartments and Koreatown strip malls of the United States, Krys Lee’s vivid and luminous tales speak to the political and financial hardships of life in Korea and the uniquely unmoored immigrant experience.
In the tradition of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Drifting House is an unforgettable work exploring love, identity, war, and the homes we make for ourselves.
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home.
As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.
Pachinko-Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.
Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.
Melanie Steyn’s new novella, Once Around the Sun, marks a rare and insightful attempt by a foreign writer to recreate characters and lives in Korea’s most intimate social unit: the family. Published by English-language publisher Seoul Selection, Once Around the Sun takes place in a seaside village in southwestern Korea’s Jeollanam-do Province.
It introduces the family of fisherman, Yi Chang-joon: Dong-ju, the 12 year old son―boisterous, exuberant and curious; Ji-young, the 16-year-old daughter, ripped from childhood and thrown into an adult world too soon; Yun-hwa, defined as a wife and a mother, but searching to be just herself; and Kyu-ah, the grandmother, looking back on a life full of heartache, but also forward to the legacy she will leave through her family.
Each chapter represents a season and covers the story of one member of the family. These start out as simple tales of ordinary life, but soon unfold into extraordinary accounts of spiritual awakening
Suspenseful, hopeful, and ultimately redemptive, White Chrysanthemum tells a story of two sisters whose love for each other is strong enough to triumph over the grim evils of war.
Korea, 1943. Hana has lived her entire life under Japanese occupation. As a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she enjoys an independence that few other Koreans can still claim. Until the day Hana saves her younger sister from a Japanese soldier and is herself captured and transported to Manchuria. There she is forced to become a “comfort woman” in a Japanese military brothel. But haenyeo are women of power and strength. She will find her way home.
South Korea, 2011. Emi has spent more than sixty years trying to forget the sacrifice her sister made, but she must confront the past to discover peace. Seeing the healing of her children and her country, can Emi move beyond the legacy of war to find forgiveness?
One of the most notable novels of the year, hailed by both critics and K-pop stars alike, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 follows one woman’s psychic deterioration in the face of rampant misogyny. In a tidy apartment on the outskirts of Seoul, millennial “everywoman” Kim Jiyoung spends her days caring for her infant daughter. But strange symptoms appear: Jiyoung begins to impersonate the voices of other women, dead and alive.
As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, her concerned husband sends her to a psychiatrist. Jiyoung narrates her story to this doctor―from her birth to parents who expected a son to elementary school teachers who policed girls’ outfits to male coworkers who installed hidden cameras in women’s restrooms. But can her psychiatrist cure her, or even discover what truly ails her? “A social treatise as well as a work of art” (Alexandra Alter, New York Times), Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 heralds the arrival of international powerhouse Cho Nam-Joo.
Love in the Big City is the English-language debut of Sang Young Park, one of Korea’s most exciting young writers. A runaway bestseller, the novel hit the top five lists of all the major bookstores, went into twenty-six printings, and was praised for its unique literary voice and perspective. It is now poised to capture a worldwide readership.
Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars where they push away their anxieties about their love lives, families, and money with rounds of soju and ice-cold Marlboro Reds that they keep in their freezer.
Yet over time, even Jaehee leaves Young to settle down, leaving him alone to care for his ailing mother and to find companionship in his relationships with a series of men, including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.A brilliantly written novel that takes us into the glittering nighttime of Seoul and the bleary-eyed morning after with both humor and emotion, Love in the Big City is a wry portrait of millennial loneliness as well as the abundant joys of queer life.
San is twenty-two and alone when she happens upon a job at a flower shop in Seoul’s bustling city center. Haunted by childhood rejection, she stumbles through life—painfully vulnerable, stifled, and unsure. She barely registers to others, especially by the ruthless standards of 1990s South Korea.
Over the course of one hazy, volatile summer, San meets a curious cast of characters: the nonspeaking shop owner, a brash coworker, quiet farmers, and aggressive customers. Fueled by a quiet desperation to jump-start her life, she plunges headfirst into obsession with a passing magazine photographer.In Violets, best-selling author Kyung-Sook Shin explores misogyny, erasure, and repressed desire, as San desperately searches for both autonomy and attachment in the unforgiving reality of contemporary Korean society.
In a classroom in Seoul, a young woman watches her Greek language teacher at the blackboard. She tries to speak but has lost her voice. Her teacher finds himself drawn to the silent woman, for day by day he is losing his sight.
Soon the two discover a deeper pain binds them together. For her, in the space of just a few months, she has lost both her mother and the custody battle for her nine-year-old son. For him, it’s the pain of growing up between Korea and Germany, being torn between two cultures and languages, and the fear of losing his independence.
Greek Lessons tells the story of two ordinary people brought together at a moment of private anguish—the fading light of a man losing his vision meeting the silence of a woman who has lost her language. Yet these are the very things that draw them to each other. Slowly the two discover a profound sense of unity—their voices intersecting with startling beauty, as they move from darkness to light, from silence to breath and expression.
Greek Lessons is the story of the unlikely bond between this pair and a tender love letter to human intimacy and connection—a novel to awaken the senses, one that vividly conjures the essence of what it means to be alive.
The Age of Doubt collects some of Pak Kyongni’s most famous works, including her 1955 debut and other stories featuring characters that would appear in her 21-volume epic, Toji. Many of Pak’s stories reflect her own turbulent experiences during the period following the Korean war and the various South Korean dictatorships throughout the twentieth century.
Based on a remarkable true story, the New York Times bestselling author of Please Look After Mom brilliantly images the life of Yi Jin, an orphan who would fall under the affections of the Empress and become a jewel in the late Joseon Court.
When a novice French diplomat arrives for an audience with the Emperor, he is enraptured by the Joseon Dynasty’s magnificent culture, then at its zenith. But all fades away when he sees Yi Jin perform the delicate traditional Dance of the Spring Oriole. Though well aware that women of the court belong to the palace, the young diplomat confesses his love to the Emperor, and gains permission for Yi Jin to accompany him back to France.
A world away in Belle Epoque Paris, Yi Jin lives a free, independent life, away from the gilded cage of the court, and begins translating and publishing Joseon literature into French with another Korean student. But even in this new world, great sorrow awaits her. Yi Jin’s grieving and suffering is only amplified by homesickness and a longing for her oldest friend. But her homecoming was not a happy one. Betrayal, jealousy, and intrigue abound, culminating with the tragic assassination of the last Joseon empress―and the poisoned pages of a book.
Rich with historic detail and filled with luminous characters, Korea’s most beloved novelist brings a lost era to life in a story that will resonate long after the final page.
Max Hastings—preeminent military historian—takes us back to the bloody bitter struggle to restore South Korean independence after the Communist invasion of June 1950. Using personal accounts from interviews with more than two-hundred vets—including the Chinese—Hastings follows real officers and soldiers through the battles. He brilliantly captures the Cold War crisis at home—the strategies and politics of Truman, Acheson, Marshall, MacArthur, Ridgway, and Bradley—and shows what we should have learned in the war that was the prelude to Vietnam.
Critically acclaimed chef and food writer Jordan and his Korean wife Rejina provide a cultural history of the food of Korea giving context to the recipes that follow. This comprehensive collection of 100+ authentic and accessible dishes explores the ingredients and techniques needed to master Korean cooking. This is a great way to introduce yourself to Korean food or to recreate favorite dishes from your past trips.
From how to stock a Korean pantry, to full menu ideas, to recipes for every meal and craving, this is the only guide to Korean cooking you’ll ever need. You’ll find delicious recipes for Bibimbap, Kimchi Fried Rice, Crispy Chili Rice Cakes, Chicken Dumpling Soup, Seafood & Silken Tofu Stew, Pickled Garlic, Seafood & Spring Onion Pancakes, Shrimp and Sweet Potato Tempura, Knife-cut Noodles in Seafood Broth, Soy-Marinated Crab, Grilled Pork Belly with Sesame Dip, Grilled Beef Short Ribs, Deep Fried Honey Cookies, and so much more!
In this autobiography, Richard E. Kim paints seven vivid scenes from a boyhood and early adolescence in Korea at the height of the Japanese occupation during WWII, 1932 to 1945. Taking its title from the grim fact that the occupiers forced the Koreans to renounce their own names and adopt Japanese names instead, the book follows one Korean family through the Japanese occupation to the surrender of Japan and dissolution of the Japanese empire.
Examining the intersections of Japanese and Korean history that influenced Korea-Japan relations at the time, Lost Names is at once a loving memory of family, an ethnography of Zainichi Koreans in 1930s Japan, and a vivid portrayal of human spirit in a time of suffering and survival.
In Order to Live- Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
In In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park shines a light not just into the darkest corners of life in North Korea, describing the deprivation and deception she endured and which millions of North Korean people continue to endure to this day, but also onto her own most painful and difficult memories. She tells with bravery and dignity for the first time the story of how she and her mother were betrayed and sold into sexual slavery in China and forced to suffer terrible psychological and physical hardship before they finally made their way to Seoul, South Korea—and to freedom.
Park confronts her past with a startling resilience. In spite of everything, she has never stopped being proud of where she is from, and never stopped striving for a better life. Indeed, today she is a human rights activist working determinedly to bring attention to the oppression taking place in her home country. Park’s testimony is heartbreaking and unimaginable, but never without hope. This is the human spirit at its most indomitable.
Just a few decades ago, the South Koreans were an impoverished, agricultural people. In one generation they moved from the fields to Silicon Valley. They accomplished this through three totally unexpected miracles: economic development, democratization, and the arrival of their culture to global attention.
Who are the Koreans? What are they like? The New Koreans examines how they have been perceived by outsiders, the features that color their “national character,” and how their emergence from backwardness, poverty, and brutality happened. It also looks at why they remain unhappy―with the lowest birth rates and highest suicide rates in the developed world.
In The New Koreans, Michael Breen provides compelling insight into the history and character of this fascinating nation of South Korea, and casts an eye to future developments, as well as across the DMZ into North Korea.
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal communist regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?
Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.
Why It’s Important to Learn About Other Cultures
Exploring and understanding different cultures is a valuable aspect of personal growth and global awareness. Whether you are traveling to new places or a destination is not feasible, reading about other cultures can offer an introduction to a culture you’ll soon experience, or provide an enlightening alternative. There are three main reasons of why it’s important to learn about other cultures:
1. Promoting Cultural Understanding: Reading about other cultures allows us to gain insights into their traditions, customs, values, and ways of life. By exploring diverse perspectives through literature or non-fiction works, we develop empathy and understanding for people from different backgrounds. It helps break down stereotypes and fosters appreciation for the complexity and richness of human experiences.
2. Expanding Our Worldview: Through reading about other cultures, we expand our worldview beyond our immediate surroundings. Our own cultural lens often limits our understanding of the world; however, delving into literature from various regions lets us examine different historical events, social structures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs that shape societies across the globe.
3. Enhancing Empathy: Understanding the experiences of others cultivates empathy within ourselves. Literature provides a medium through which we can step into another person’s shoes and see life through their eyes – be it a coming-of-age story set in Japan or a memoir detailing life in Africa. Such stories help us relate to individuals who may have vastly different lives from ours but share universal emotions like joy, pain, love, or loss.
And there we have it, my list of books to read before visiting the South Korea. While there is no way I could list every book that I think you should read, we would all be reading for eternity (maybe that’s not a bad thing), but this list is a great introduction to Korean culture, politics, and life through the eyes of writers and novelists from the country.
Are there any books I need to add to my list? Let me know so I can scope them out!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using the links. You can also see my full Disclosure and Terms and Conditions.
**All Book descriptions come from Goodreads
Are you ready for South Korea?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options, see our resources page. Look for flights into Incheon or Gimpo (Seoul) if coming from North America or Europe, or, if traveling from Asia, try Gimhae (Busan). Jeju Island also has an airport connected to the mainland and other Asian cities.
- Find Transportation- The easiest way to get around Korea is by train or subway. Getting a KORAIL pass before you leave home can save significant money. For subways, the T-money pass can help save time by acting as a pre-paid pass.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in Korea. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Viator or Klook for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like the DMZ, Gyeongbokgung Palace, or Bukchon Hanok Village.
- Stay Connected– If your phone’s data plan is going to be expensive, get portable WIFI that can be picked up at any airport when you arrive and used by multiple devices, or a SIM card for a single phone.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About Korea- Learn about South Korea with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, novels and books about the country, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.