[Editorial] Life After the Division System: Achieving the Commons

The Quarterly Changbi 180, Summer 2018



Deftly overcoming the concern that our months-long efforts of two winters ago might end with simple regime change, the Candlelight Revolution has been marching along, while generating unprecedented events and movements throughout our society. One of the most important examples was the inter-Korean summit, held in Panmunjeom in April.

On the Korean peninsula, where, until last year, it had been difficult for us to shake off the concern over a possible war, the heads of both Koreas sat down together and agreed that they would make joint efforts to achieve peace, prosperity, and reunification. Above all, the scene in which these two heads of the state held hands and casually crossed the Military Demarcation Line was convincing enough to give us brighter hope that the barrier between the South and North could collapse in an instant. And the way the U.S.-North Korea summit is currently being prepared, as well as the flexible and forward-looking attitude that North Korea has shown in its promise of concrete measures toward peace, including the dismantling of its nuclear test site, enables us to look forward positively to a great turning point in our 70-year history of division. On the Korean peninsula, time is suddenly moving quickly and hope for a different world is beginning to bloom.

To turn such a hope into reality we need to believe that change is possible, of course; yet hope and belief are insufficient preconditions for change. Although the Candlelight Revolution fully exposed the anachronism and weakness of the political forces that are unconditionally opposed to the improvement of inter-Korean relationships, our long recent history of division made it impossible even for people who yearned for peace to shake off habitual thoughts based on division. In fact, the division has become a system in which a considerable proportion of the people do not mind having a relatively stable life, even if they do not want active antagonism between the South and North. In reality, in South Korea, which is already quite multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, it is difficult to argue that Korea should be unified as one nation simply because it is the country of a single race. It is a slogan that can no longer hold absolute truth. On the other hand, the argument that South Korea and North Korea should peacefully co-exist as separate nations under a peace agreement also ignores complicated historical contexts and realities behind the division. No matter how quickly the inter-Korean relationship improves, it will not be able to overcome the division-based system without considering its systematic nature. The work of overcoming the current system will require persistence, wisdom, and a firm resolution for a long time to come.

Above all, we urgently need an understanding of the systemic nature of the division, because the current tide of peace between the South and North does not touch equally on everyone everywhere. In Seongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, for instance, the Ministry of National Defense clashed with its residents as the government attempted to enter the THAAD base without prior discussions with its residents, only a day before the inter-Korean summit. Remembering that the official reason for the THAAD deployment was the North Korean nuclear threat, it is not difficult to imagine the frustration of the Seongju residents, as they have to continue confronting the police even after the inter-Korean summit. Also, in Gangjeong, Jeju, people are worried that their struggle against the naval base there will be isolated if most people believe that peace has already been achieved, even while U.S. nuclear submarines continue to use the site, which is in the heart of their village. Of course, when the Korean peninsula is denuclearized and a system of peace begins to settle in, these changes will eventually contribute to the solution of the problem of these bases. In order to build a peaceful Korean peninsula, however, it is essential that those people who are now rushing to enjoy Pyongyang naengmyeon, and who look forward to a transcontinental railroad trip to Europe, at the same time remember those neighbors who are still having a hard time due to the loss of the foundations of their daily lives under the excuse of national security and the threat of war.

In addition, there are other people who are worried that their voices might be erased amidst the excitement of the inter-Korean summit. Supporters of the Me-Too movement, for instance, which condemns sexual violence within hierarchical relationships-a pervasive phenomenon in Korean society, sometimes even without the awareness that it is a crime-confess they are worried about the current media’s near-exclusive attention to the summit, even though they are happy with the rapid improvement of inter-Korean relationships. Also, while popular support for the Liberty Korea Party, one of the leading forces behind the movement to abolish human rights ordinances, is plunging, local governments continue to abolish this ordinance even more often, making us wonder if human-rights conditions in our society have improved at all for minorities, who are protected by the ordinance.

In the face of these questions, it is imperative that we do not forget that all these movements, from the Me-Too effort to the improvement of inter-Korean relationships, are part and parcel of the tidal wave created by the Candlelight Revolution, which cannot be completed without the building of a society in which the existence and rights of minorities are guaranteed. The Candlelight Revolution is currently sweeping our society, dismantling many deep-rooted evils, like a strong current collapsing a dike, which cannot be easily stopped.

In this context, together with the Me-Too movement, which exposes many problems pervasive in our society, including gender discrimination, age discrimination, and labor issues, through the condemnation of sexual violence, and which is now spreading to teenagers, the recent movement demanding that the owners of Korean Air step down is also noteworthy. This movement, which began with the exposure of the conglomerate family’s power-tripping practices, is now expanding into an alliance criticizing the family’s inheritance and management practices, labor practices, and even management of private universities. When people who begin to fight against the powerful in their everyday lives, even for an apparently minor matter, join together, it will eventually become the motivating power to fundamentally change the customs of the division era, ubiquitous in our everyday lives. In fact, patriarchal gender discrimination as well as the autocratic practices of the privileged few could thrive so long in our society partly because of the division system prevalent in it.

One of the issues that should concern us, in the current, rapid improvement of inter-Korean relationships, is that our wish for a prosperous and peaceful Korean peninsula might not be free from the developmentalist model that has been dominant during the division era. It would be natural to expect people’s lives in both the South and North to become more prosperous with the disappearance of the shadow of war and an unpredictable future that have fettered people’s lives; but it would be a disaster to lead our development in the direction in which we destroy the environment for the sake of prioritizing economic speculation. This previous approach would surely be a stumbling block to the advancement of peace and happiness. In order to imagine and plan the post-division era, we need a different approach to the designing of our future and our lives in it.

At this juncture, the role that a self-governing public process, which is emphasized by the theory of the Commons, can play in our society is noteworthy. Unlike the existing theories of public involvement, the theory of a self-governing public process emphasizes that we cannot solve the problems of contemporary crises by depending simply on either the market or the state. In order to solve the issues we encounter in our daily lives, rather than turning to individuals nor the abstract idea of society, we need a community in which free and equal relationships are guaranteed among its members, in line with the new era we are now living in. Considering that the current improvement in inter-Korean relationships became possible under the political structure created by the Candlelight citizens, we need to envision the great possibilities of post-division life in this arena of the Commons.


The common resources postulated in the theory of the Commons are often regarded as something exhaustible, if shared or consumed by too many people, but the feature of the current issue, “Literature, the Commons”, demonstrates that it is not always the case. It is because literature as the commons, by its nature, maintains itself and makes progress only through people’s creative participation and efforts to heighten values in our lives. Hwang Jung-A diagnoses that the current situation surrounding the field of literature seems almost paradoxical, in that the public values of literature are more emphasized than before, and yet the condemnation of the whole literary field is getting so rampant at the same time. So, this situation requires us to pose the questions of the nature of sharing, creativity, and values peculiar to literature. Admitting the literary egalitarianism providing opportunities to everyone to speak whatever they like in any way they want is considered to be an essential aspect of literature as the commons, she argues, the unconditional assertion or enjoyment of share itself does not belong to the true characteristics of literature.

Baik Ji-yeon points out that feminism has now been established as an important indicator of public process in our society, emphasizing that to make sure the publicness should not remain abstract, those violations such as gender discrimination and sexual assault must be contemplated in the context of real lives of women. That is the point where literature can be no other than the commons, and also our valuable common resources would enable us to think of ‘real’ women problems. Through close analysis of the novels by Park Wan-seo, Hwang Jung-eun, Han Kang, and Choi Eun-mi, Baik successfully addresses the question of what critical interventions should be like in feminist practices as well as feminist theory.

Choi Jin-seok, by delving into the relationships between literature and the public in the historical context, demonstrates that literature is cultural resources accessible to every member of a society, not something owned by private individuals. By reformulating the modern “publicness” into the present “commonness”, he asks back the function of criticism in our rapidly changing reality where the public takes the initiative as subjects of creation and criticism. For him, the key word distinguishing publicness from commonness is an “affect”, and to get “common-affecting” feelings revealed as “events” is referred as the crucial task of the present criticism.

Three articles in the corner of Literary Criticism broaden the horizon of literary discussion in the current issue. In memory of the 50th anniversary of Kim Soo-young’s death, Hwang Kyoo-kwan examines the world of this poet’s works under the title of “a journey towards freedom, revolution, and love”. Hwang articulates the distinction of Kim Soo-young as a poet whose verse soars more for the audacious struggling for something ever-new by which he attains his peculiar voice for democracy. Boudewijn Walraven, professor emeritus of Korean Studies of Leiden University in the Netherlands, discusses Kasa literature as the public sphere in the Chosŏn period. After surveying several trends in Kasa, such as critical and resistant ones in the formative process of public opinion in Chosŏn, and enlightening one in the early 20th century, he insists what Kasa literature contributed to the public sphere should be acknowledged as the significant succession of traditional culture. Elaine Showalter, an American feminist critic and scholar of English literature, pursues the transition of women’s literature in the US and the UK. Her argument focuses on The Power, a 2016 best-selling science fiction by Naomi Alderman, its central premise being women developing the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers, thus leading them to become the dominant gender, and goes on to show its differences both in style and in ideas from resistant narratives of previous generations.

Dialogue covers the topic of educating feminism in school. The participants, Kim Ko Yun-ju, Kim Su-hwa, Kim Jieun, and Choi Hyun-hee come to an agreement that mere criticizing today’s prevailing women-hate and gender bias cannot overcome the phenomena, so they argue, first of all, we should uncover the educational mechanisms fostering gender-discriminative subjects, and develop alternative contents and methodology to promote gender awareness in the classroom.

In the corner of Articles, Lee Jung-chul examines the significance of the historical “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” from various perspectives. He emphasizes that “the parallel advancement”, the simultaneous project for denuclearization and peace treaty, contains an essential requirement to break through the current political situation, and envisions what our diplomacy for reunification should be like in order to establish a peace system on the Korean peninsula. In this context, he appreciates Moon Jae-in administration’s effort to put the president himself in the “driver’s seat,” to defuse the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program, and to make “the progress in the relationship between inter-Koreas and the balanced progress among the four super-powers”. Lee Hyangkue, a civil society activist, overwhelmed to hear the news of the unexpected inter-Korean summit from the UK, her current residence, sends the responses abroad and her own thoughts on the meeting. In her reflective style, she tries to convey the following: so many prayers for the peace on the peninsula from all over the world as well as from the residents of the peninsula have made the sudden, but touching summit possible, and we should not forget that those of the dead as well as the living are also included in the prayers. Kim Kwang-nam and Hwang Min-ho introduce Okcheon farmers’ movement and the activities of the local community which have been continued on the basis of food for more than 30 years. Okcheon community provides an apt example of welfare made possible by the commons movement, in that the residents themselves, grounded on autonomous principles of village democracy, have participated in every corner of daily lives, ranging from child-rearing, education, markets, and farming, to cooperative associations, local food, and housing.

“There is no good war.” This saying is the gist of Nobody Remembers, a novel by Ahn Jae-sung. In Focus on Authors, Kim Hae-ja, the poet, has a heart-to-heart conversation with the novelist about literature and history, focusing on the life of the protagonist of the novel, Jung Chan-woo, who died gloriously in the tumult of the period of Korean War and the division of the country.

The corner of Creation presents the works by 12 poets and 4 novelists. The new poems by twelve poets will surely give readers diverse impressions and profound thought. And those distinctive short stories by Kim Hye-jin, Jang Eun-jin, and Jung Ji-don capture the sharp images of our era, respectively. Also, the second contribution of Kim Ryeo-ryeong’s novel, A Week, deserves our continuous attention. In Literary Focus, Kim Jong-hoon and Shin Sat-byul, the literary critics, meet Choi Jin-young, the novelist, and have a lively and fruitful discussion on the remarkable poems and stories published the last season. Each review in the corner of Book Reviews is also worth a special attention, for it deals with new books with diverse and controversial topics from Chinese-language literature of Korea and world literature, humanities and social sciences and natural sciences, to feminism and ecological issues. We offer our sincere gratitude to contributors for their efforts for this corner.


This summer, we will greet events of great significance for the future of the Korean peninsula, including the U.S.-North Korea summit. It is natural that we expect this to be a significant turning point in the process of overcoming the division system. But it is also a time for us to calmly and practically prepare for life beyond the division system. This new existence would not be possible without numerous individuals who have made great efforts, creating meaningful changes and opening up new possibilities in their everyday lives. We look forward in the coming days to continuing to design our post-division lives together with our readers in a common effort.


Paik Young-Gyung