An excellent piece in the Korea Times by Andrei Lankov (who is usually pretty good) on “Yi Kwang-su, arguably the first modern Korean writer.” Following Yi’s life, Lankov admirably brushes in how he came to be “modern,” including the fact that he was introduced to modernity in Japan. This is interesting, and potentially brave, because there is ongoing historical argument about the role of the Japanese in the modernization of Korea. Thankfully, this is a literature blog, so I can largely ignore that. 😉
Yi is most famous for `Mujeong” (Heartlessness), which was printed in “Maeil Sinbo, the only Korean-language newspaper allowed by the colonial authorities at the time.” (From the Herald). He was also a bit of a cause celebre in his personal life, being one of the first Koreans to divorce and remarry (for love). In February 1919, Yi was among the Korean students leaders in Japan who composed the “ Feb. 2 Declaration of Independence.”
This was the predecessor to the March 1 “Declaration of Independence,” which set off the March 1 Uprising of 1919. Yi moved to Shanghai and was involved with the Shanghai Provisional Government, the Korean nationalist government in exile. Twice imprisoned by the Japanese, Yi later in life became one of the first Koreans to willingly change his name to a Japanese one, and during WWII wrote pro-Japanese propaganda.
Quite a switch of direction, and the story ends badly. After WWII he was ostracized, and during the Korean Civil War, he was taken by the North, and soon died in the hills of North Korea.
Lankov provides more details, and the article is well worth reading.