Lee Hochol was born in 1932 not far from the port city of Wonsan in what today is North Korea. Shortly after the civil war started in 1950, he was drafted into the People’s Army. When he was a prisoner of war, he met the first Koreans who had Western ways and were from South Korea; their life seemed freer and more independent. After his release he decided to remain in South Korea. When the war ended in July of 1953, he still did not return home. Today Lee Hochol lives as a writer in the vicinity of Seoul. Since 1997 he has been a guest professor at Kyongwon University which is also in Seoul. He has received many prizes for his essays, stories, and novels, including the Literature Prize of the Republic of Korea.
His experiences during the war and leaving his home and family at a young age have had a lasting influence on Lee Hochol’s creative work. His first work ‘Talhyang’ (1955) is about the experiences he underwent at this time. His stories always focus on the lives of ordinary people; this is the case in the story ‘Tarajinun Saldul’, which was published in 1962 and received the prestigious Dongin Literature Prize. Since the 60s he has also been popular as an author of satirical works like the novel ‘Kongbok sahoe’ (1968). Despite his literary success, Lee Hochol remained a social outsider for a long time, since he made himself politically unpopular as a “leftist” and spokesperson for the ordinary people. He was politically persecuted in the 80s for his involvement in the democratization movement and at times even arrested.
In 1996 the highly autobiographical novel ‘Namnyok saram puknyok saram’ was published in German translation. It describes the despotism as well as the humaneness on both sides of the front through the eyes of an 18-year-old soldier in the People’s Army, who during the civil war ends up in prison in South Korea. The author vigorously rejected the interpretation which has been made by some critics that the book is a condemnation of the North Korean system. What really interests Lee Hochol is that the two sister countries come to an understanding. His novel ‘Sosimin’ is a portrait of South Korea at the time of the civil war. It describes, from the point of view of the first person narrator, how traditional values and forms of living together disappeared, and a class of nouveau-riches established itself.
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In his works Hochol deals with the consequences of the war and the division of Korea in a way that is neutral and free from ideological sharpness. The emphasis is not on the differences between the two states, but on the individual person and the question of how his or her life is influenced by political relations. In times when North and South Korea are carefully coming closer together, Hochol’s work is being appreciated anew.
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