K-Book Review: ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo

Ashna Susan Varkey, New Delhi

Cho Nam-Joo’s novel titled ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ was published in 2016. It sold more than a million copies. It is one of the key feminist contemporary novels in South Korea. It created an impact and was a catalyst for the Me too Movement in South Korea, back in 2017-18. I got the opportunity to read the translated version and I am glad that I read through this masterpiece. According to a study made by the National Library of Korea, Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 was the most borrowed novel in South Korea in 2019 for the second consecutive year.

The novel focuses on a woman in her 30s who suffers from post-pregnancy depression. It contains the story of her mother, grandmother, and sister. A woven woof of different generations, different women, and different stories. All of them face different kinds of abuse, discrimination, and injustice. This novel points out the fundamental issues hindering gender equality, concealed as a simple story of a young woman. The one thing that is unique about this book is the fact that it is not preachy, and is just telling a simple story. 


The story begins with the birth of Kim Ji-young into a typical South Korean family. The initial chapters focus on her mother, Mi-sook, and her journey. Mi Sook wanted to be a teacher but her dreams became secondary in front of her brothers and their future. She had to provide for her brothers and sacrifice her education. The romanticising of women’s sacrifice can be observed in all societies, and South Korea is no exception. They say ‘All mothers live like this.’ Here, the writer tries to put that systematic oppression right in the center of the room. Kim Ji-young also remembers vividly how her grandmother had preferential treatment toward her brother. With the statement ‘How dare you take something that belongs to my precious grandson’, the writer shows the ingrained patriarchy that still exists in society.  

Her school life shows a true picture of the gender abuse faced by girls all over the world. She was traumatised by the violence and manipulation faced during school days, and is one of the key reasons for her current state of mind. For instance, when her deskmate kicks the shoes across the room, no one dares to question it. Kim Ji-young is accused of something she had not even done. Afterwards, the teacher apologised for the unwise assumption. But the  response of the class teacher is just appalling. Ji-young pleaded to the teacher to assign her another deskmate and the conclusion the teacher reaches is mind boggling. The boys being mean to the girls they like is a wrong teaching in itself and aids to the gender violence that women face. Kim Ji-young asks ‘If you like someone, shouldn’t you be nice to them. Isn’t it common sense?’ Teacher makes it seem like she is a bad child for having misinterpreted her friend when in fact she was the victim of abuse. 

Kim Ji-young noticed deep-rooted discrimination very early in her life. Everything began with the boys, from homework to food to presentation. Men’s National registry number began with one and women’s with two. The sex ratio of 1982, speaks for itself about how society was obsessed with the male child. In 1982, 106.8 boys were born to 100 girls. The specifications that the writer has mentioned regarding girls, how to wear uniforms, and the prohibitions that were put on them, also is an indicator of the same.

Her elder sister, Um-young, was a rebel. She saw through all the biases and she tried to stand up against them. She, as an individual, started changing the way she approached situations in her family. She saw her mother’s struggle, her grandmother’s love for her brother, and her father’s ignorance of the girls in the family. She was made to choose a particular job that was considered tailor-made for the women. They would not suggest the same to the boys. But, unfortunately, even Kim Um-young did conform to societal pressure, as it seemed more reasonable at the end of the day. 

In further chapters, Kim Ji-young in her adolescence, facing the stalker, is the story of every woman out there. The male student kept stalking her. He could not accept that the girl was ignoring and was disinterested in him. It shows the male mindset that they own the woman. The incident is nothing exceptional nor is her father’s response. We all have heard these kinds of stories, and we know how the victim is shamed instead. The writer points out that the victim shaming begins at home. The fact is that it was not her fault but yet, she was made to give up her classes, dress modestly, and come back home early as the solution for the situation. They restrict the woman in the name of protection rather than teaching the boys the meaning of consent. Kim Ji-young lived with this trauma for years and nobody cared or even acknowledged. 

Why You Should Read This?

Another aspect of this beautiful story is how the writer puts forward the mental health issues and its acceptance in society. In South Korea, just like other Asian countries, mental health is still a taboo. People fail to understand the people who are suffering from different health conditions. For them, it is all the same. Kim Ji-young’s post pregnancy depression is not something heard of by the family members. And the response of the mother-in-law is enough to understand how narrow minded the society still is. This novel, yet again, paved a new way for the people to understand others suffering from mental health issues. It provides them with a safe space to come forward and talk about themselves. 

Picture Credits: The Guardian

It is also important to note the amount of negativity that is coming from the male section of the society for the book. According to the young men in South Korea, the women were given government support to enter male oriented industries but when it comes to the mandatory military service, only men have to leave. They point out that it is a form of gender discrimination. The book was a phenomena and an instrument to changes in family structure of South Korea. The book is not briefing or directing individuals towards what is right and what is wrong. It is simply putting out the story of a regular woman, which amazingly, in some or the other way,  is connected to every other woman who has ever been born in this world. This novel also has its own movie adaptation starring Jung Yu-mi and Gong Yoo.

South Korea is one of the most developed nations, which has topped the Global Innovation Index for consecutive years. What is interesting to see is the commotion this book created, and the changes it led to. The book is a must-read for all as it shows the true picture of society and the barriers we must acknowledge. Many women and men recognised the abuse, the discriminatory practices, and the problems that exist in their society. By knowing what is wrong, one can start having conversations about how to change the situation. That is exactly what South Korea is doing. Take a look at the preview of this novel here:

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Jubby Kumar says:

    It is a powerful book! It’s like mirror reflection of our society! Such sensitive topics need proper addressal!
    There is still a lot to be done in this regard!
    The families should treat the girl child and the boy child equally! The mindset of the society needs to change first!

  2. I wanted to read this book for so long, thank you for this article I got this urge and motivation to buy the book soon. Loved reading the review, I like how you covered the different aspects of book so incredibly.

  3. ThatMoleGirl says:

    Wow …this book seems to reflect on the true state of women and the hardships they go through.. very nice review.

  4. mondalmoumita031 says:

    Will definitely read this book ♥️

  5. Mamoni says:

    Thanks for the recommendation ❤✨

  6. AYUSHI VERMA says:

    Thankyou for the recommendation i definitely read this one ❤️

  7. Tirna says:

    Wonderful review ♥. Thank you for the recommendation.

  8. Drishti Belkhede says:

    Loved the book review!

  9. This was such an amazing read🔥❤️ I absolutely loved this 🙌

  10. DJ says:

    Loved the book review 💜💜💫thankyou

  11. Sunanda ghosh says:

    I’m not a book lover but after thz article I really wanna read it….

  12. anishanath says:

    I have came across this book a lot of times in book stores, online but never got a chance to read it but I guess I should start it. This article is very well written which is leading me to read this book asap.

  13. Well reviewed

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