The earliest Korean poems, hyangga, date back to the Shilla kingdom, founded by King Park Hyeokgeose in 57 BCE, in Gyeongju. They were written using Idu script, adapted from Chinese hanja characters which were used to represent both concepts and phonemes. Hyangga consist of four, eight or ten lines. Taoist and Buddhist themes dominate the poems, many of which were eulogies to monks and warriors.
The Koryo period of Korea began with the abdication of King Kyongsun of Shilla in 935. The principal sources of Korean legends, myths, and folktales are from the Koryo period. The Samguk sagi (Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) from c.1146 CE and the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) from c.1285 CE collated legends of the founding of Korea by Tangun, the lives of the early kings and stories about animals, ogres, and goblins. The Samguk yusa included the lives of Buddhist saints, stories about miracles effected by Buddhas, and 14 hyangga from the Shilla period.
Upper class literature in the Koryo period was written in classical Chinese. Hanshi poems in Chinese characters were popular. A new type of poetry, shijo, reflected Confucian thought, particularly the theme of loyalty. Shijo were popular with common people. Pyolgok or changga poetry, characterized by a refrain either in the middle or at the end of each stanza popular, were sung to musical accompaniments for entertainment.
The Choson dynasty was founded in around 1392 by Taejo Yi Seong-gye. The use of the Korean alphabet (Hunmin Chong-um) and Korean script (Hangul) began during the Choson period. Literature written in Chinese was dominated by the Yangban class of landowning aristocrats. The first work of Korean fiction, New Stories of the Golden Turtle by Kim Shi-sup (1435-1493), was written in Chinese. Korean script opened the door to literacy amongst women and commoners. Yongbi eocheonga (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), compiled during the reign of the Fourth Choson ruler, Sejong the Great (1397-1450), was the first Korean text in Korean script using the Korean alphabet. The first novel in Korean was Ho Kyun's seventeenth century King Kil-ton Chon, a social commentary attacking the inequalities of Choson society.
Late Choson literature espoused independence, patriotism and nationalism. The collapse of the Choson Dynasty in the years leading up to 1910 marked the start of modern Korean literature (shinmunhak). The 1894 Gabo reforms, which brought about the introduction of Western-style newspapers and schools in Korea, encouraged professional writers. Newspapers published traditional poetry shijo and gasa, as well as serialized modern Korean novels. New poetry (sinchesi) paved the way for Korean free verse poetry (jayusi), one of the earliest of which was Ch'oe Nam-son's poem, "From the sea to a child," in the magazine Sonyon (Child) in 1908.
Both the press and speech were restricted in the colonial era (1910–1945), stifling Korean literature during that period. After Ernest Bethel's Taehan Maeil Shinbo was seized by the Government-General 1909, publishing without censorship became impossible in Korea. The Samil movement introduced a new kind of Korean literature. Kim Hyok and Kim Tong-in founded a literary magazine in 1919 Changjo (Creation), and were followed by others in 1920s and 1930s. It was through these that modern literature in Korea was able to develop. Themes included social injustice, industrialization and modernization. The magazines were closed by the Japanese in the 1940s.
Post-war South Korean literature was largely a response to the division of Korea and breakdown of traditional Korean values. Some authors turned to folk traditions and classical literary forms. Others expressed political views, humanism and Western modern themes. National division (bundan soseol) became a common theme. A joint literary congress was held in 2005 with writers participating from North and South Korea.
Literature in post-war North Korea was controlled and shaped by the state. Repressive controls were promulgated by the official Choson Writers' Alliance "Guidelines for Juche Literature". Literature had to praise the country's autocratic leaders, Kim Il-sung and, later, Kim Jong-il. Only works by Writers' Alliance members could be published. The Writers' Alliance monthly literary journal Choson Munhak was distributed in South Korea and elsewhere. The North Korean poet Byungu Chon's poem "Falling Persimmons" describes the impact of the partition of Korea, and hopes for reunification. The North Korean author Hong Seok-jung's 2002 novel Hwangjini, a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, received the South Korean Manhae Literary Prize.
North Korean literature has been translated into Chinese and Russian. The first Korean anthology in English was Peter Lee's 1974 Flowers of Fire. The South Korean Government created the Korea Literature Translation Institute (KLTI) in 1996, which significantly extended the availability of Korean literature worldwide.