How Artist Na Hye-sok Became a Threat to a Sexist Korean Society

She believed that for Korea to experience true liberation, women had to be freed first

Alex Sujong Laughlin
Published in
7 min readJan 14, 2020


Na Hye-sok, 1915. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

InIn 1918, 22-year-old Na Hye-sok published Korea’s first feminist short story, Kyonghui. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece about a woman who returns home from Japanese university to be confronted by family members and neighbors who doubt the worthiness of educating girls. In Kyonghui, Na processes her own feelings about being an educated Korean woman and her frustration with the rigid gender roles in her home country:

“I’m a woman, and I am a Korean woman — a woman shackled by Korean society’s family conventions. If a woman tries to stand on her own, she will feel pressure from all quarters, and if she aspires to accomplish something, she will be criticized from all sides.”

Kyonghui would prove unfortunately prescient for Na Hye-sok.

Na was the daughter of a wealthy Korean family and graduated from Tokyo Women’s College of Arts in 1918 as the first Korean woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Western painting. A year after she published Kyonghui, when she was back in Korea, Na joined four other women, Kim Won-ju, Pak In-dok, Sin Chul-lyo, and Kim Hwal-lan, as they gathered in secret to launch the first issue of a new magazine called Sinyoja, or New Woman, which was dedicated to examining women’s roles in Korea. The five women had assembled at the intersection of two concurrent social movements: the 1919 Korean independence movement and first-wave feminism.

DDuring Japanese colonization, from 1910 to 1945, the Korean people were nominally subjects of the Japanese emperor but lacked any elected political representation. The Japanese sought to wipe out thousands of years of Korean culture by forbidding the use of the Korean language even in private homes and by forcing Koreans to assume Japanese names. Korean rights of speech and representation were also nonexistent; it was illegal to assemble or form organizations or to publish periodicals for political purposes.

Upon her release in 1919, Na connected with the other women of Sinyoja over the idea to start a magazine by and for new…