Korean literature is usually divided chronologically into a classical and a modern period. But the basis for such a division is still being questioned. Great reforms swept Korea after the mid-19th century as its society actively absorbed Western things.
Korea's classical literature developed against the backdrop of traditional folk beliefs of the Korean people; it was also influenced by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Among these, Buddhist influence held the greatest sway, followed by enormous influences from Confucianism - especially Song Confucianism - during the Choson period.
Modern literature of Korea, on the other hand, developed out of its contact with Western culture, following the course of modernization. Not only Christian thought, but also various artistic trends and influences were imported from the West. As the "New Education" and the "National Language and Literature Movement" developed, the Chinese writing system, which had traditionally represented the culture of the dominant class, lost the socio-cultural function it had previously enjoyed. At the same time, the Korean script, Han-gul was being used more and more frequently, resulting in the growth and development of Korean language and literature studies. With the advent of the "new novel" (shinsosol) came a surge in novels written in the Korean script. Music and classical poetry, formerly fused together in a kind of a song called ch'anggok, were now viewed as separate endeavors. New paths opened up for the new literature. While Korea was importing Western culture via Japan or China, it was also carrying out literary reforms from within.
Linguistic expression and manner of transmission are issues of utmost importance in the overall understanding of Korean literature. Korean literature extends over a broad territory: literature recorded in Chinese; and literature written in Han-gul. These two aspects of Korean literature greatly differ from each other in terms of their literary forms and character.
Korean literature in Chinese was created when Chinese characters were brought to Korea. Because Chinese characters are a Chinese invention, there have been times in Korea's history when efforts were made to exclude literature written in Chinese from the parameters of what constitutes Korean literature. But in the Koryo and Choson cultures, Chinese letters were central to Koreans' daily lives. We also cannot overlook the fact that the literary activity of the dominant class was conducted in Chinese. While Chinese-centered ideas and values are contained in this literature - a feature shared by most of East Asia during this period - they also contain experiences and thought patterns that express the unique way of life of the Korean people.
The use of the Korean script began during the Choson period with the creation of the Korean alphabet (Hunmin Chong-um). The creation of the Korean alphabet in the 15th century was a crucial turning point in Korea's literary history. Compared with the literature written in Chinese which was dominated by the upper classes, Korean script made possible the broadening of the literary field to include women and commoners. This expanded the social base of Korean writers and readers alike. The Korean script (Han-gul) assumed its place of leading importance in Korean literature only during the latter half of the 19th century. After the Enlightenment period, the use of Chinese letters swiftly declined and the popularity of Korean letters greatly increased. As soon as the linguistic duality of "Chinese" and "Native" within Korean life was overcome, literature in the Korean script became the foundation upon which the national literature developed. [source: www.asianinfo.org]