Unlike Korean dramas and movies, Korean literature is still struggling to find its place in the global market. Some Korean novels remain largely undiscovered and unread, so they’re like hidden gems waiting to be found.
Along the lines of famous titles from other countries, Korean novels are also page-turners as they have a lot to offer. From all sorts of genres, different kinds of themes, and enthralling storylines, some titles might even convince you that they’re the best!
The 10 Best Korean Novels You Need to Read
Want to take a break from K-dramas and crack open a few books instead? Here’s an exciting list of the 10 best Korean novels you should read:
- I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-Ha
- Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Kim Young-Ha
- Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
- Pachinko by Lee Min-jin
- The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
- Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
- The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang
- Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
- The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
1. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-Ha
Kim Young-Ha is known as Korea’s young master of storytelling. He released his debut novel ‘I Have the Right to Destroy Myself’ in 1996, which won the Munhak-dongne prize and gained him international recognition.
Set in mid-90s Seoul, the novel starts with a mysterious narrator that manipulates and convinces people who seek solace to commit suicide. He considers it a business, so his victims become his clients, and he writes their experiences to turn them into a story and an ‘art.’
The novel also focuses on Se-yeon, a woman caught in a love triangle between brothers C and K. She becomes one of the unnamed narrator’s clients as she seeks solutions to her love and life problems.
Read It Now: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-Ha
2. Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Kim Young-Ha
‘Diary of a Murderer’ is another masterpiece written by Kim Young-Ha. It is a collection of one novella with three other engrossing short stories that showcase the author’s talent and clever mind.
The novella opens as a first-person fictional journal of a serial killer battling Alzheimer’s disease who’s on a mission to protect his daughter from another suspected serial killer. But here’s the catch: as his memories slowly fade away, his perspective will make you doubt whether to believe him or not.
Meanwhile, the three short stories follow the story of an affair gone wrong, an abducted child, and a wealthy owner of a publishing house who plans on killing his ex-wife.
3. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ is a fictional novel that features real-life examples about the state of gender equality in South Korea. It took the country by storm and sold a million copies as it served as Korea’s new feminist movement.
The novel follows the life story of Kim Jiyoung, from childhood to adulthood. She works a decent job but had to quit it to care for her newborn daughter full-time. However, her life becomes strange when she starts to imitate other women ― alive and even dead.
Her husband starts to get worried as he thinks she’s suffering from postpartum depression, so he sends her to a psychiatrist. But it turns out there’s a deep reason behind her strange behavior.
Read It Now: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
4. Pachinko by Lee Min-jin
If you’re a K-drama fan, you’ve probably heard or watched ‘Pachinko.’ But did you know it’s based on a novel with the same title? Originally, it’s an epic historical fiction written by Min Jin Lee. It comes with an emotive story that shows some history of Japanese-Korean relations.
It starts with fifteen-year-old Sunja, who lives a simple life. She falls in love with an older wealthy man named Koh Hansu and later becomes pregnant with his child. But little did she know that her lover is married.
Not willing to be a mistress, she decides to cut ties with Koh Hansu and tries to love again with the help of Baek Isaak, a protestant minister willing to marry and give her a better life. Together, they try to survive any hardships that go in their way.
Read It Now: Pachinko by Lee Min-jin
5. The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Looking for a crime-mystery novel? Perhaps you’d like The Plotters by Un-Su Kim! It’s a fantastical crime novel that’ll keep you on your toes as you progress through the story.
Set in an alternate Seoul, Reseng is a trained assassin raised by a killer named Old Raccoon. Every move he makes is dictated by an anonymous mastermind known as the ‘plotter.’ But his life shifts when he meets a trio of young women with a plot of their own.
Read It Now: The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
6. Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
‘Untold Night and Day’ by Bae Suah isn’t for a casual read. To follow and grasp the four-dimensional story, you’ll need total concentration and a sharp mind for its details and symbolism.
The novel starts with Ayami carrying out her last performance in a small theatre for the blind in Seoul. As the theatre closes for good, she finds herself unemployed, not knowing where to start next.
Fortunately, her former boss offers her a job where they search for a missing a friend. Taking the opportunity, Ayami wanders the night only to look for another person the next day. As soon she interacts with the man she meets, the story goes like a dream-like journey where past and present, and fiction and reality start to ravel.
Read It Now: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
7. The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
Being one of South Korea’s most notable writers, Hye-young Pyun skillfully writes about the horrors of isolation and buried truths in her psychological thriller novel, The Hole.
Waking up from a coma with a paralyzed and disfigured body, Oghi learns that his wife died on their devastating car accident. After recovering in hospital, he gets discharged and taken care by his mother-in-law.
Things start to get strange when he finds the old woman in his wife’s abandoned garden — digging a huge hole.
Read It Now: The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
8. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian is a well-known novel internationally. It’s a disturbing story that depicts mental illness, obsession, and individual choice.
It’s about the protagonist, Yeong-hye, who experiences a series of nightmares of violently slaughtered animals. Traumatized, she decides to renounce eating meat and become a vegetarian.
From that day on, she also starts acting weirdly and disturbingly — like a different person — leaving her husband and parents worried and disturbed.
Read It Now: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
9. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
Love in the Big City is a coming-of-age story of a young gay man named Young who lives in a society where homosexuality is not yet considered normal.
The novel follows him and his female best friend, Jae Hee, as they discover their sexuality. From his childhood, Young deals with homophobia, so when he transcends into adulthood, he searches for happiness and love by meeting up with his Tinder matches.
Read It Now: Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
10. The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
This tragic yet beautifully-written historical novel follows the real-life story of Yi Jin, an orphaned young girl who became the most accomplished performer in all of the court.
Victor Collin de Plancy, the French legate in Korea, falls head over heels with Yi Jin and asks her hand for marriage. Together, they sail away from Korea to France, but as she explores the foreign country, loneliness starts eating her up.
Read It Now: The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
After scrolling through our list of the best Korean novels, we hope you’ve found some titles to add to your TBR list.
Like your favorite K-dramas, Korean novels are also worthy of your time as they entertain while opening and broadening your mind with thought-provoking stories and deep meanings. Some of the titles we included don’t even require a lot of time to read as they can be finished in one sitting!
What are your thoughts about the novels in our list? Tell us what you think in the comment section below!
Wanna read more books about Korea? Check our list of the 12 best Korean historical books.