The Shin Kyung-Sook Plagiarism Scandal

Given how rampant plagiarism is in many fields in South Korea—and it really, really is, despite some limited attempts to address it—I figured it was only a matter of time until some famous contemporary author here got accused of it… at least, on a stage public and prominent enough for it to make it into the English language news.

Well, that finally happened earlier this year, in September… accusation, scandal, flubbed dismissals, and finally an apology… well, sort of. (Kind of a non-apology apology, of the sort that’s very fashionable these days everywhere.) It happened back in September, but I’ve been busy so I’m only posting about it now.

Of these, the flubbed dismissal by her publisher is the most interesting—and for whatever reason was left out of the English-language coverage—but I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, the caveat: I’m not fluent in Korean, and am basing this on not only English but Korean sources, with some help and some guessing. I may have some facts wrong here. If I do, I appreciate any corrections offered.

But the absence of discussion on blogs dealing with Korean Lit and Korea generally has been downright conspicuous… or, well, I haven’t seen a post yet in the places I know about (nudge, nudge). I’ll spare you all the lecture on how Hallyu nationalism has sadly infested even academic scholarship on Korea,  and just say it’s a pretty glaring omission for what probably will be, for most South Koreans, the year’s biggest and most memorable Korean Lit news story, concerning the most internationally famous Korean author today.

Creative Commons licensed photo by ccmontgom. (Source)
Creative Commons licensed photo by ccmontgom, who I am guessing is Charles Montgomery of the Korean Literature in Translation blog. (Photo source.)

So, the accusation: over at the Huffington Post Korea a few weeks back, writer Eungjun Lee accused internationally-famous South Korean novelist Kyungsook Shin of plagiarism. This got a little coverage in the English press, but not much in the English-language blogs in Korea. There was some discussion in the news outlets, and on the radio in English. But this story trended hard in Korean. All my (non-literary) students knew about it, and sill remember it.

Here’s what happened as far as I understand it: 

The Huffington Post article I linked above (and once more for the lazy) includes an example suggesting Shin had plagiarized material from a story titled “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima. In the Mishima passage, it’s about a soldier who is often away from home, but when he’s on leave he has sex with his wife every chance he gets… and how the wife becomes accustomed to it, and begins to enjoy it. In the example from Shin’s work, the husband isn’t a soldier but the scenario is otherwise similar. Lee argues that Shin plagiarized specific wording from Korean poet Kim Hu-ran’s translation of the story, but also elements of plot line and general scenario. Which is to say, it can’t be a coincidence of similar wording, since the relationship and elements of plot match as well.

More interestingly, Lee also suggested this has been kept quiet within the literary scene for questionable reasons, including:

  • Shin’s esteemed status among critics
  • Her prominent position in the world of Korean literature, and
  • Her international popularity

A word of explanation, regarding the last point: in some South Korean circles, there has long been a desire to have a Korean author—especially one who writes the stuff Koreans like to read—win a high-profile international prize (such as the Nobel Prize for literature) and/or enjoy popular success abroad. Essentially, this is the literary form of the same aspirational nationalism that leads people to long for the global success of K-pop. 1 In the light of all that, accusations of plagiarism for someone in Shin’s position can be pretty high-stakes… and according to Lee, that results in a stronger desire to try to bury the issue.

Burying indeed: Shin’s original response was that she hadn’t read that Mishima story (or the translation she’d been accused of ripping off), and that she had nothing more to say about it.

She returned a few days later to kinda-sorta apologize for the plagiarism… without exactly admitting to having committed actual plagiarism, mind you. It was one of those passive-aggressive non-apologies that has become so common these days, and then she bowed out of the discussion. (She essentially admitted that the phrase in her own story was disconcertingly similar to the one in the Mishima translation, and that as a result she now was feeling more uncertain of her memories, and might have read the Mishima story and forgotten it.) In the absence of those other examples promised by Lee, this was enough to end her involvement semi-gracefully, and I haven’t seen any further v=comment by her reported anywhere. (Though if you have, please leave a comment with a link!)

Not that it’s necessarily going to save her status or legacy. In fact, from what I hear Shin’s status as a Korean author has started to be reexamined, at least by some commentators on social networking sites. There seems to be a growing faction of people who are willing to say semi-publicly (correctly, in my opinion) that she’s basically a mediocre author, and always has been. A few have even suggested that she was consciously seized upon and promoted by a publishing world as a kind of bulwark against a rising tide of implicit feminist critique in contemporary Korean fiction—a kind of milksop “top-tier female author” figure who achieved her prominence mostly because she was useful in staving off a more general literary trend toward fiction informed by growing feminist self-consciousness. In other words, she was a useful, if not very good, female writer who could be held up as proof of literary equality, but who wouldn’t upset the social apple cart by, say, criticising her society’s rampant sexual inequality.

One could say she’s being made out to be the Sarah Palin of Korean Lit, in other words. This sounds about right to me, based on my (limited) experience of her work. What’s unfortunate is that, until the plagiarism allegations surfaced, this wasn’t getting said…

Such a suggestion raises questions, of course: there’s a presumed “they” who made the decision to use Shin this way. In English-language publishing, such a notion would seem bananas, but perhaps such a thing is feasible in Korea—not because of any greater ability to conspire, but simply because literary publishing here has shrunk tot he point where where the major decision-makers really are a small circle who hold the same core values. That wouldn’t surprise me at all; plenty of effective monopolies in Korea exist in the same way, without much need for overt collusion. 2

For what it’s worth, the one book I read by Shin, in English translation, was thoroughly unimpressive, which is to say, it was in my opinion gag-inducing trash, though I was vaguely polite about it when I posted about it. (I wanted to spare the feelings of the student who made a gift of it to me, and who might have read the review later on.) It’s just cheeseball melodrama of the kind that fills prime time Korean TV. How that bucketful of drivel won the Man Asian Prize is utterly beyond me, but since that’s irrelevant to the issue, I’ll leave it at that. Still, my low opinion of Shin’s writing is why this bit in the AP article (linked above) surprised me:

The plagiarism accusations have shocked South Korea’s literature scene, where she has been one of the few commercially proven authors in a country that increasingly reads fewer books.

Why would anyone expect that “one of the few commercially proven authors in a country that increasingly reads fewer books” would be less likely to plagiarize than a more obscure author?

Frankly, I’d expect the opposite. That’s not to say popular is bad, but if people are reading less fiction (and they absolutely are here, as in many places) then you cannot expect the fiction they do choose to read to be particularly creative, unique, sophisticated, or interesting. You would, in fact, expect it to be less so, since people who don’t read generally aren’t going to be going in search of literary experiences that emulate familiar narrative forms, structures, and sensibilities. Nobody was surprised when it turned out that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was basically a cheap riff on some occult “nonfiction” books (he won the plagiarism case, but it’s widely acknowledged how derivative his work is… and Brown’s really not that good a writer. Bad writers are likelier to plagiarize since they take less pride in their craft and in their prose.) Plagiarism seems less surprising, not more, when you’re looking at bestsellers beloved by people who don’t read much.

The only real shock to me in the Shin case, to be quite frank, was that Shin was being accused of ripping off Mishima. It was like hearing that E.L. James had ripped off Ovid, or Dan Brown had plagiarized from Thomas Pynchon. My first reaction was, “She’s read Mishima?!?” And, lo and behold, part of her first response was to immediately claim she hadn’t… or hadn’t read much, anyway.

But what I found really interesting was Shin’s publisher’s fumbled reaction, which amounted to two claims:

  1. Shin is really famous internationally, and that’s what Korea needs and wants, right?
  2. Shin is, like, this totally sane, nice, lovely Korean lady who’s all about, like, family values and moms and stuff. Whereas Mishima was a NASTY JAPANESE FASCIST WEIRDO KOOK WHO LIKED WAR AND KILLED HIMSELF AND STUFF! So how could she have plagiarized him?

Both points had an unspoken, “So shaddap!” appended to them.

The second point is, well… while I find it unsurprising when undergrad students make these kinds of arguments, it’s a bit pathetic for a literary publisher to fumble on basic logic. Of course a melodrama writer can plagiarize a fascist kook. And if Shin’s famous internationally, isn’t it important to hold her to account for risking shaming Korea with a news story about literary plagiarism? Then again, it’s Shin’s publisher: maybe we shouldn’t expect much. Melodrama is, after all, rather corrosive to the intellect.

But that first point? It hearkens the dangers of those conditions I mentioned above as “Hallyu Nationalism”: Korea’s anxious desire for an internationally famous author is profound enough that some people thought Shin’s success should justify dismissing the charge without even looking into it.

I am curious, though, what other examples Lee claims exist, and why they still haven’t been held up for examination. (At least, nowhere I’ve looked.) To me, a plagiarism accusation requires more than a passing resemblance in one scene that could be chalked up to unconscious half-remembered text being recycled in someone’s work. Two examples would be harder for Shin to claim a memory lapse over, and three would be impossible. So why didn’t Lee present multiple examples, if there are more to present?

I Met Someone, a book with a metafictionally referential title.

What’s more interesting, though is, the limited polarization of one’s options: either it’s 100% totally original, or it’s plagiarism? Really? What about homage? What about metafictional reference? Shin could have just said, “Ah, finally someone got the reference. I guess it was too subtle.” 3 In case you didn’t know, metafiction is a thing in Korean lit: one example is how Bae Myung-hoon told me that the title of the 2007 Korean SF anthology 누군가를 만났어 (which contains stories by him, Boyoung Kim, and Aejin Park) is a conscious riff (as well as a pretty direct translation of) the title of the Bollywood SF film Koi… Mil Gaya:

Likewise, a story my wife and I are working on translating now is clearly conscious of (and feels on some level like a response to) Isaac Asimov’s robot stories (especially the ones collected in the original I, Robot).

So why did Shin miss an easy out? Was she just too embarrassed at being caught out? Was she worried about what other examples Lee might produce? Unaware that she could plead metafiction—and suggested she was commenting on the Mishima? Did she think that the discussion wouldn’t allow for a more nuanced exploration of the grey area where a work can be derivative without being outright plagiarism?

Or maybe she was convinced that an unapologetic apology was simply the most expedient response to get past the embarrassment? I’d love to hear more.

I wouldn’t have entertained the latter thought, except I read a piece in the Dong-A Ilbo titled “Cartel within writers’ community interrupts eradication of plagiarism”, which suggests that Shin is another example of the “Ladygate” phenomenon: a woman getting crucified over behaviour that is far more common than her critics are willing to admit, while others (especially men) who behave in the same way do so with general impunity.

That doesn’t exonerate Shin, of course, but it does provide context: apparently a number of South Korean authors have done what she seems to have done, and gotten off scot-free… because the community shushed it up, and because publishers played defense for them. It could be because Shin is a woman, or maybe her enormous (if inexplicable) success abroad, or both, that motivated her being outed… but she’s apparently far from the only offender. It may also be that, like me, her detractors revile her melodramatic writing and welcome the chance to opportunistically denounce her while leaving untouched others whose writing they prefer—original or otherwise—are left alone.

I also found is the suggested response to this systemic corruption interesting (in the same Dong-A Ilbo piece):

Park Cheol-hwa, the member of the editorial board, said, “Novelist Shin made a mistake to some extent, but large publishing firms should also reflect upon excessive commercialism first.” Jang Eun-soo, former chief editor of Minumsa Publishing said, “The intention to forgive because it is an issue of plagiarism involving well-known bestseller writer is indicative of low moral standards in the writers community in Korea,” adding, “In an era when even politicians fail to win senior government positions due to acts of self-plagiarism, only the writers’ community has failed to keep abreast of the conscientious standards of society.”

Kyung Hee University professor Lee Myung-won said, “Like the academic community that has guidelines on research ethics, the literary community should also devise specific code of ethics and guidelines on disciplinary actions.” Prof. Kwon said, “We should make the so-called a writers’ ethics committee, and publish a White Paper that comprehensively reviews acts of plagiarism that have been committed thus far.

It sounds to me like they want to set up a kind of literary Truth & Reconciliation Commission on Literary Plagiarism or something. I can’t see that happening, or working, or the public caring all that much. Clear guidelines aren’t the solution to cover-ups: the stakes have to go higher. Only when intellectual property rights are respected enough that any case of plagiarism has high stakes, and when the shame of being caught plagiarizing is enough to end or seriously damage a professional career (not to mention a bank account) will things get better.

Which is to say, it’ll get taken seriously when people collectively start treating it as a serious issue. That said, I think an interesting option would be a website where apparent cases of plagiarism could be reported anonymously, to be evaluated not only by “experts” (who, according to the Dong-A Ilbo piece, are compromised) but by anyone interested—with the ostensibly copied text side by side with the original? I can imagine legal problems, but perhaps not-insuperable ones… but it certainly would raise the stakes, as well as knocking away all protections granted to certain authors and denied to others.

I suppose one could also argue that publishers ought also to face consequences for publishing plagiarized work; that would at least give them the incentive to do due diligence before publishing work that is ripped off. (Especially in the case of blatant rip-offs.) But really, it’s the authors who are ultimately responsible, and who need to face repercussions when they steal.

Then again, Orlando Figes is still around, after such gross intellectual indecency that any sane and just scholarly world would have voted him off the island years ago. It is true that we perhaps should not be permanently judged on our worst moments.

But then again, I think Shin’s worst moments are in her novels. What else could be more apt, as the basis on which we judge a writer?

  1. Indeed, one of the really stifling things about the fine arts in Korea is how crucial international success is as a metric of artistic quality; this drives a need for artworks to be both distinctly Korean, but also to appeal to non-Korean audiences which can have interesting results, as Choi Jinhee noted in The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs, which I reviewed for the Japan Times), but can also cripple a film or book, or, more crucially, the people creating them.

  2. Not that it’s beneath the local corporations to collude, but even without collusion, there’s a lot of agenda homogeneity on the ground.

  3. I have stories where characters and situations are lifted from other texts, usually aimed at homage and/or performing subtle commentary on the other text. (“Dhuluma No More” is about a hijacked sea vessel and features an African character named “Babo”; if you’ve read your Herman Melville—not Moby Dick, mind, but “Benito Cereno”—you know there’s at least some kind of metafictional reference going on here. There’s an homage to Kafka in a story of mine that was published last year—”Masar Gergos” is the anagrammatically named character in a story about a war between two factions of “insects” who once had human form, and retain human consciousness. 

2 thoughts on “The Shin Kyung-Sook Plagiarism Scandal

  1. This was really interesting, thanks for this. Plagiarism is (and should be) the worst thing a writer can do. I am curious what other Korean novels have gotten their “inspiration” from, and where. Sadly I am not too familiar with East-Asian literature to satiate this curiosity.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, there seems to be some rumblings about setting up a system of consequences for authors and publishers alike, from what I heard the other day. (Now I’m trying to remember who at work told me this, but it’s slipped my mind.)

      I’d be curious to see more about other cases of literary plagiarism. I will say, though, that the whole idea is only starting to really catch on here, which means the boundaries for defining it are still murky. A few years ago one of the regular commenters here, a Korean academic, talked about a wave of concern over “self-plagiarism” in Korean academia… meaning, when people recycle their material between papers, because they’re talking about the same broad subject. (This may be frowned on a little, but not always, in English speaking academic circles, but it’s not really considered a form of plagiarism, anyway.)

      I would suspect any of the Korean literature that’s made it into translation wouldn’t fall into the range of plagiarism, though who knows? People copy so much. A friend of mine saw a concert in Gwangju where some guy played a bunch of songs off Joshua Redman albums… and played Redman’s improvised solos verbatim. (Which, in jazz circles, is worse than plagiarism: it’s just absurd, at least outside a practice room.)

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