June 23, 2015

Bestselling novelist Shin Kyung-sook accused of plagiarism


Author photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Author photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Shin Kyung-sook, author of Please Look After Mom and I’ll Be Right There, has been accused of plagiarism by author Lee Eung-jun. Kyung-sook, whose first book sold two million copies in South Korea and hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2011, is suspected of lifting lines from Yukio Mishima, Kenji Maruyama, and Luise Rinser.

One week ago, author Lee Eung-jun published a piece in Huffington Post Korea that he believed Kyung-sook had taken lines from the short story “Patriotism” by Mishima for one of her own stories, titled “Legend.” Last Thursday, Hyun Tac-soo, a literature professor, filed with prosecutors to officially examine “Legend” for plagiarism, as well as whether Please Look After Mom incorporates lines from Rinser’s The Middle of Life.

In fact, Park Cheol-hwa, a literary critic who is on the editorial board of a quarterly called Writer’s World, suggested as far back as 1999 that Kyung-sook’s Goodbye was alarmingly similar to Maruyama’s Water Family. He and the author argued in newspaper columns, but the issue was not resolved. “If she had admitted and apologized at that time, this unfortunate situation would have not have happened,” he told Dong-a Ilbo yesterday.

It’s a sexy line that caught Eung-jun’s attention: “[She] became the body that knows pleasure” appears in both Kyung-sook and Mishima’s work, with similar characters and themes. In the South Korean academic community, six consecutive words are enough for a copyright violation. But is this enough for a plagiarism suit?

South Korean copyright laws are substantially different than those in the U.S. or UK:

 “There are no specific standards in provisions in Korean copyright acts that clarify ‘overlapping of a certain number of words or phrases constitute plagiarism,’” said Kim Chan-dong, head of the legal system research team at the Korea Copyright Commission. “Whether copyright has been violated or not is determined based on ‘probability’ meaning the possibility of plagiarism that is deemed to have been committed when the court viewed the original copyrighted material, or ‘practical similarity’ between two literary works in questions.”

Moreover, the Global Post reports Kyung-sook may have borrowed some titles from another local author:

Yonhap News Agency found on Monday that “Footprints of Heavy Bird” and “Away, on the Endless Road,” the titles of two of her short stories published in the March-April 1990 issue of the “Korean Literature” magazine and the autumn issue of “Munye Joongang” in 1992, were identical to those of two poems published in 1987 and 1989 by Yoon Hee-sang, a poet.

Shin could not be reached for comment as she, according to the Changbi Publishers representing her, currently stays in an undisclosed place in order to write a novel.

Kyung-sook’s publisher said the author would not respond, but issued a statement on her behalf: “I feel sorry and heartbroken for my readers for this confusion. As we’ve been through many ups and downs, I only hope that they will believe me. Things like this only leave scars on authors, so I will not respond [to the claims] regardless of the truth.”

Changbi’s statement noted that the passages “do not make up a significant portion of the works.”


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.