Vivid descriptions and characters who immediately seem real are hallmarks of the best Korean novels in English—we’ve compiled a list of our top picks.
Korean authors are known for bending genres, writing in a first-person style that draws the reader in from the first sentence, and exploring social themes that often go untouched. Many Korean novels have been translated into English, allowing people in the United States and beyond to explore Korean literature. Whether you’re looking for romance, crime, or time travel, you’ll find what you’re looking for in modern Korean literature.
- 1. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
- 2. The Plotters by Un-su Kim
- 3. The Disaster Tourist: A Novel by Yun Ko-eun
- 4. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-ju
- 5. Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
- 6. Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Kim Young-ha
- 7. Pachinko by Min Jim Lee
- 8. Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang
- 9. Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan
- 10. The White Book by Han Kang
- 11. My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim
- 12. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
- 13. If I Had Your Face: A Novel by Frances Cha
- 14. Please Look After Mom by Sin Gyeongsuk
- 15. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
- 16. Almond: A Novel by Sohn Won-pyung
- 17. Drifting House by Krys Lee
1. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian explores how a young woman’s choice to stop eating meat makes her a societal and familial outcast. Protagonist Yeong-hye has a dream about animals being slaughtered and decides that she no longer wants to eat meat. Eventually, Yeong-hye is admitted to a mental hospital after deciding that she wants to live life as a plant instead of a human.
“It was cold enough as it was, but the sight of my wife was even more chilling. Any lingering alcohol-induced drowsiness swiftly passed. She was standing, motionless, in front of the fridge. Her face was submerged in the darkness so I couldn’t make out her expression, but the potential options all filled me with fear.”Han Kang, The Vegetarian
2. The Plotters by Un-su Kim
The Plotters delves into the hitman industry in South Korea and takes a lighthearted approach to serious and violent topics. The book explores how tough financial times in South Korea lead many to choose career paths they could never have imagined—including lives of crime. Murder is seen as a job in The Plotters—nothing more and nothing less. If you enjoyed our round-up of the best Korean novels, we have many more articles on the best authors from around the globe. You might want to check out our list of the best Korean authors. Or use the search bar at the top right of the page to search for authors in a country or region you are interested in.
“He couldn’t decipher what was coming his way. Could be a wild boar. Or a wildcat. Reseng disengaged the safety and pointed his rifle at the darkness, toward the approaching sound. He couldn’t pull the trigger yet.”Un-su Kim, The Plotters
3. The Disaster Tourist: A Novel by Yun Ko-eun
Yona, the main character in The Disaster Tourist, has an unusual job: coordinating travel arrangements for an agency that sends tourists to areas devastated by natural disasters. She’s sent to a resort where she discovers a plan to create an imitation natural disaster, and she’s forced to decide between her job and her morals.
“Recently, whenever Yona went into work, she’d felt like a dandelion seed that had somehow drifted into a building. The chair she sat in each morning was definitely hers, but for some reason, sitting in it was awkward, like this was the first time she’d ever touched the piece of furniture.”Yun Ko-eun, The Disaster Tourist: A Novel
4. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-ju
Living on the edge of Seoul, Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, is about a woman who seems to have it all—a seemingly happy marriage, a new baby, and the ability to leave her white-collar job to stay home with her little one. Her family and friends are alarmed when Kim speaks in the voices of other women, dead and alive. The book is known for launching the new feminist movement in Korea.
“The four brothers were born and raised at a time when mere survival was a struggle. As people died, young and old, of war, disease, and starvation, Koh Bonsoon worked someone else’s field, peddled someone else’s wares, took care of domestic labor at someone’s home, and still managed to run her own home, fighting tooth and nail to raise the four boys.”Cho Nam-ju, Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982
5. Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
Untold Night and Day is a novel about 24 hours in the life of Ayami, a 28-year-old woman living in Seoul. She and her boss are on a search for a missing friend. The book follows the pair’s conversations around love, life, food, and the political turmoil between North and South Korea. The book quickly and scandalously blurs the lines of reality, and readers wonder what’s true and what’s in Ayami’s head.
“Ayami didn’t know much about her predecessors. She’d never seen their faces, and didn’t even know their names. All they’d left behind were a few ballpoint pens rolling about in a drawer, and a couple of sheets of notepaper bearing scribbled curses directed at no one in particular.”Bae Suah, Untold Night and Day
6. Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Kim Young-ha
Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories contains four short stories with opposing themes, including good and evil and life and death. In the book’s title story, the protagonist is a serial killer who is dealing with memory problems yet is determined to correct his past wrongs. He decides that he’s sure his daughter’s boyfriend is a serial killer and sets out to permanently stop him from causing more harm.
“I decided that if the class was lame I would kill the instructor, but thankfully, it was interesting. The instructor made me laugh several times, and he even praised my poems twice. So I let him live. He probably still doesn’t know he’s living on borrowed time.”Kim Young-ha, Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories
7. Pachinko by Min Jim Lee
Pachinko takes readers on the journey of a Korean family that moves to Japan and race stereotyping and racism as they attempt to settle in their new home. The book was published in 2017, was incredibly well-received by critics, and became a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. The story was also made into an Apple TV+ series released in 2022.
“The matchmaker brought it up first. So there was that unfortunate matter of his foot and broken lip, but Hoonie was clearly a good boy—educated and strong as a pair of oxen!”Min Jim Lee, Pachinko
8. Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang
Human Acts: A Novel explores the connections between mercy and violence. As a young boy, Dong-ho is violently murdered in the middle of a South Korean uprising. This novel is partly based on the true events of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and explores the way unexpected murder affects families, friends, and society. The book won Italy’s Malaparte Prize and Korea’s Manhae Prize.
“This morning, when you asked how many dead were being transferred from the Red Cross hospital today, Jin-su’s reply was no more elaborate than it needed to be: thirty. While the leaden mass of the anthem’s refrain rises and falls, rises and falls, thirty coffins will be lifted down from the truck, one by one.”Han Kang, Human Acts: A Novel
9. Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan
Flowers of Mold is a collection of ten short stories that explores various aspects of Korean culture, including the pursuit of dreams, sexual assault, violence, family issues, substance abuse, and more. The book takes typical daily circumstances and inserts odd and unusual aspects that make the reader think about normal life in a new light. Readers will notice repeated themes and symbols across stories, although the characters are not connected from one story to the next.
“There is a flower basket on top of the bedside locker. ‘We wish you a full and speedy recovery.’ It looks like you’ve had a visit from the club; the words Icarus Wings Hang Gliding Club are written on the pink ribbon from the basket. The roses are withering to a blackish red.”Ha Seong-nan, Flowers of Mold
10. The White Book by Han Kang
The White Book is an emotional and challenging read. It follows Kang’s journey as she recalls her older sister’s death as told to her by family members. Her sister died at just two hours old, and while Kang never met her, she’s been deeply affected by how her sister’s death rippled throughout her family for the coming decades. The book can be viewed as a meditation and a story of grief, loss, and family.
“Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.”Han Kang, The White Book
11. My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim
Readers love Kim’s humor and humanity throughout My Brilliant Life. The book follows Areum as he experiences life through conversations with his neighbor, who he affectionally calls his Little Grandpa, his parents, and through reading books about places he’ll likely never get to see.
Throughout the book, Areum pieces together his piece of writing that details the love story of his parents. Readers find themselves rooting for Areum through the ups and downs of his life and falling in love with his close-knit family. If you enjoyed this guide on the best Korean novels, you might be interested in our round-up of the best British authors.
“I don’t know who had a bigger impact on my being born, my dad or my mom. All I know is that neither was decisive. Sometimes in life, the answer we search for so avidly reveals itself elsewhere, and the question we ask is born from a context that has nothing to do with the answer.”Ae-ran Kim, My Brilliant Life
12. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
Korea has undergone massive modernization in recent years, and At Dusk follows the story of Park, a director of an architectural firm who remembers Seoul the way it used to be. When his company is investigated for fraud, Park has to consider whether modernizing his city is right. While under investigation, he receives a message from an old love, and he’s forced to consider whether he should return to the way things once were. The novel forces readers to consider whether forward progress is always the way to happiness—or if some things are better left alone.
“He’d come out of surgery in a coma. It might have been a blessing in disguise. He was due to appear before the prosecutor in a week. Most likely, whoever else was involved would thank their lucky stars when they heard the news.”Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk
13. If I Had Your Face: A Novel by Frances Cha
If I Had Your Face: A Novel is Cha’s first novel, and it explores the seemingly impossible beauty standards held by many people in Korea. The story follows four friends who are constantly striving to meet the standards of Korean society while also thriving in their personal and professional lives. You’ll love meeting Kyuri, Miho, Ara, and Wonna and watching how their friendship with one another keeps them stable and strong as they navigate the ups and downs that come with living as a young woman in Seoul.
“Sujin is still complaining about her eyelids. She has been unhappy about them almost the entire time I have known her—before and after she had them stitched…About a dozen girls got their eyes done there that year because the teacher offered us a 50 percent discount. The rest of us with monolids couldn’t afford even that.”Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face: A Novel
14. Please Look After Mom by Sin Gyeongsuk
An international bestseller with more than 1.5 million copies sold around the world, Gyeongsuk’s Please Look After Mom follows the story of a family searching for their 69-year-old matriarch, So-nyo. Her family struggles to understand how she disappeared, and they argue with one another over how to go about finding her. The multiple narrators in the story allow readers to see different perspectives, including that of So-nyo herself.
“How far back does one’s memory of someone go? Your memory of Mom? Since you heard about Mom’s disappearance, you haven’t been able to focus on a single thought, besieged by long-forgotten memories unexpectedly popping up.”Sin Gyeongsuk, Please Look After Mom
15. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
Love in the Big City follows the journey of Jaehee and Young, who spend nights out over drinks and cigarettes, where they discuss love, life, anxiety, and family. Eventually, Jaehee decides it’s time for her to settle down, leaving Young to fend for himself in Seoul. He struggles to find happiness alone and finds himself hopping from relationship to relationship to find someone to fill his best friend’s place. The book was nominated for the 2022 International Booker Prize.
“But two months in he said he loved me but couldn’t bring himself to love me when I was drunk (when I’d sing on the street and kiss him and curse and make a scene before inevitably collapsing into tears at the end) and therefore couldn’t see me anymore, which left me with a very rational grudge against all DJs. Jaehee, who had no inkling of my complex feelings, spoke about her new boyfriend with a face filled with joy and animation.”Sang Young Park, Love in the Big City
16. Almond: A Novel by Sohn Won-pyung
Beloved by the BTS fandom, Almond: A Novel follows the story of Yunjae, who was born with a brain condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to feel negative emotions. He struggles to make friends but is close to his mother and grandmother. When Yunjae turns 16, his world is forever changed by an act of violence, and he finds himself alone for the first time. An unexpected friendship—and a possible romance—show Yunjae that life beyond tragedy is possible.
“He had chosen to be the last victim of his manic bloodshed. He stabbed himself in the chest hard and, like most of the other victims, died before the ambulance came. I simply watched the whole thing unfold before me. Just standing there with blank eyes, as always.”Sohn Won-pyung, Almond: A Novel
17. Drifting House by Krys Lee
In this collection of short stories, Drifting House author Krys Lee expertly allows readers to fall in love with characters living through difficult times, including the North Korean famine and the South Korean financial crisis. The difficulties that come with living in the Koreatowns in large cities in the U.S. Lee’s writing deals with themes of relationships, family, and crisis.
While many of her characters meet a not-ideal fate, the humanity of her stories shines through, providing situations that force readers to examine the difficulty that life has been for many Korean people over the past century. Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best travel authors!
“She tolerated Mr. Rhee’s arm around her shoulder, his parched white hair like the roots of spring onions, the dry-cleaning chemicals on his plaid shirt—a professional hazard of running Pearl Express, a dry-cleaning business. His garlicky breath scraped her nose. He, too, must have endured her stale travel smells.”Krys Lee, Drifting House