[Editorial] Steps Toward the “Fullest”

The Quarterly Changbi 181, Autumn 2018

 

 

It was only a few months ago that we saw the historic North Korea-US Summit, yet it feels like it happened longer ago than in June. This must be partially due to the many important events that have rocked Korean society since then, including the radical results of the national election on June 13. But, this deceptive sense of time might also testify to the fact that our old habit of sidelining North Korea in thinking about South Korean society is still very much alive. A recent incident, in which an investigation into military documents uncovered a recent, aborted attempt at a military coup, is an obvious example of the continuing strength of the status quo, which is based on the division of Korea. Also, the alleged secret deals about politically sensitive incidents between the previous administration and the justice department, as well as the societal discussion about the abuse of power at airline companies, originated from this continuing strength of the status quo based on division. Controversy around the minimum wage increase is also tied to this structural issue. Arguing for and against the minimum wage increase without addressing the matters of “rent” and conglomerate-led exploitation, would simply encourage in-fight among the exploited and underprivileged. In short, it is difficult to achieve the cleaning up of deep-rooted evils if we focus on that task without considering structural issues, and it is difficult to achieve denuclearization if we focus only on the denuclearization of weaponry. Due to the division system, with which we have lived for so long, we cannot achieve reforms in South Korea if we try to do it without paying attention to the inter-Korean relationship, while “outsourcing” the issue to North Korea and the United States.

Therefore, we need to consider the historic nature of the Panmunjom inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-US summit in Singapore again, even just to make sure we’re on the right track. In this context, we find the following sentence in Chairman Kim Jong-un’s opening remarks at the Singapore Summit quite significant: “The old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles … but we overcame them—and we are here today.”

There are three key reasons we are paying attention to his speech. First, it was probably the first time that a North Korean supreme leader has explicitly and officially declared, in his own voice, his firm intention and will for denuclearization and for the establishing of peace on the Korean peninsula. Second, by emphasizing “old prejudices and practices that worked as obstacles,” he has recognized that the work of building a new history requires unprecedented creativity. If “we overcame [old prejudices and practices]” to be “here today,” clearly, we would need a new paradigm, one that would be entirely different from the old one. Third, and most importantly, Chairman Kim’s new position was possible in the aftermath of the “Candlelight Revolution” in South Korea. Of course, we need to recognize the current South Korean government’s contribution to this development through superb mediation, which drew North Korea and the US together in this historic summit; but we should not forget where the source of the power that created and moved the current government came from. We need to be aware that we are able to even recognize the significance of the North Korean leader’s remarks only thanks to the historic flooding of light created by the Candlelight citizens.

Concerning this North Korea-US summit, some argue that the meeting itself was meaningful, while others have expressed disappointment about the lack of dramatic progress in their relationship—that it did not push forward the achievement of the Panmunjom declaration. However, the North Korea-US summit was historic simply because it went beyond the previous approach, in which both sides tried to gradually establish trust by exchanging minimal promises step-by-step in order to arrive at a common goal. Rather, it was a reverse approach, whereby they confirmed a general and mutual trust first, and then planned to move onto detailed measures. Although they had achieved considerable progress before, by controlling mutual mistrust and exchanging small promises, this former approach could not resolve their exposure to “old prejudices and practices.” Consequently, this North Korea-US summit was historic and significant in that they not only recognized realistically that these old prejudices and practices were the causes of stagnation in the resolution of the situation on the Korean peninsula (and in particular, the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea), but also calmly acknowledged that this would be a long process rather than a case of one-time deal-making. Although doubts have been expressed about this process, both in South Korean and US media, due to the war of nerves in detailed negotiations, recent progress, exemplified in the recent third inter-Korean summit and the discussion about the second North Korea-US summit, proves that the old, vulnerable structure in their relationship has considerably improved.

Furthermore, resisting, or being unable to recognize, this historic progress is also the effect of the entrenched division system. In fact, of course, old prejudices and practices are quite prevalent not only in South and North Korea, but also the US and the entire capitalist world system. When we narrow down our perspective to South Korean society, the continuation of these prejudices and practices might have contributed to the minimalist efforts at engagement that have been in effect in the society for the three decades of the 1987 system. Born of the compromise between democratic reform forces and reactionary and conservative forces, this system was fundamentally unstable, under the control of the overriding, division-based system. Therefore, the practice of suturing most social conflicts both within and outside of South Korea by coming up with minimal measures that all parties can readily agree on and put into practice became settled in the society. Although we cannot ignore the progress of democratization achieved through this process, we might have lost the ability to imagine the maximum possibilities, as this period of “minimalism” has been prolonged. The argument that we should focus simply on reforming South Korean society, while also transforming the inter-Korean relationship into a normal inter-state relationship, is typical of this minimalist thinking. However, it becomes clearer, as time passes, that the Candlelight Revolution sounded the death knell for this unstable, seesaw-like balancing game. It is now time to step forward firmly to recover the fullest potential, while distinguishing between what has clearly changed and what has not.

 

With this understanding in mind, in the “Feature” section of the current issue we focus on the “Korean Peninsula Beyond Division.” We carefully examine the essential matters to be considered in the planning of a post-division Korean peninsula, while giving an overview of the significance of the remarkable developments in the recent state of affairs in and around the peninsula. This is also an attempt both to continue and to advance the previous discussion in the “Feature” section of the spring issue of Changbi: “It Is Time to Rethink the Division System.”

Addressing the question “What kind of inter-Korean association should we build?” Paik Nak-chung argues that we should recognize that “a lower-level, inter-Korean association” is already underway. He also points out that denuclearization and the establishment of an inter-Korean union are interdependent tasks—in other words, that it is difficult to achieve denuclearization without an advance in an inter-Korean association, just as denuclearization is necessary for the establishment of this association. In addition, he criticizes current arguments, put forward by some, for a two-state system of peaceful co-existence that precludes reunification or the establishment of peacefully co-existing normal states, arguing that such arguments are not only hollow but also disrespectful of Korean citizens’ desire for change. At the same time, he argues persuasively that even if South and North Korea become two normal independent states, based on the agreement on a permanent division, this would not result in a desirable future.

Suh Jae-jung considers the origin of US President Trump’s forward-looking approach to the Korean issue and its possible influence on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the security regime in Northeast Asia, from the framework of the US national security strategy. In a meticulous argument, he persuasively analyzes how the Trump administration’s national security strategy succeeds a “realistic internationalism,” a traditional postwar US policy, while at the same time accommodating it to “neomercantilism.” Readers will take away an important message from this article: that we can build a road to a peaceful system in the Korean peninsula only within the process of understanding and responding boldly to both the opportunities and crises that Trump’s policy offers.

As the possibility of resuming inter-Korean economic collaboration grows, Lee Seok-gi explores the circumstances and conditions for inter-Korean economic collaboration by examining recent trends in the North Korean economy, and, in particular, the concrete contents of its economic reform. After outlining trends in North Korean economy, which has been recovering since 1998, he argues that the economic reform measures during the Kim Jong-un period both succeed the Kim Jong-il period’s economic reforms and advance them by institutionalizing them.

Based on thorough research into recent North Korean literature, Oh Chang-eun gives an overview of the literary world of renowned North Korean writers such as So Chong-song and Kim Hae-ryong, yet unknown to South Korean readers. At the same time, he offers us a glimpse of recent changes in North Korean literature through recent works by Ri Ho-jun, an author he finds particularly noteworthy. Such a keen mutual understanding and recognition of differences in South and North Korean literatures will become a precious foundation for the establishment of peace in the Korean peninsula.

In the current juncture of the controversy surrounding the government’s policy of income-led growth, “Dialogue” examines the direction that economic policy has taken for the past year, after the inauguration of President Moon Jae-in and his administration. The participants discuss how to approach the matter of an appropriate level for an increase in the minimum wage and how to solve the difficulties that owner-operators and other economic agents currently face. This discussion also addresses and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of various theories of economic growth. Their brief discussion on the inter-Korean economic collaboration at the end of the dialogue is connected directly to the discussion in the “Feature” section.

“Articles” address two controversial and heated issues that have rocked South Korean society lately: university reform and Yemeni refugees. Korean universities are currently confronting a crisis of top-down restructuring, due to some deep-rooted structural issues, while dealing with chronic and deepening hierarchical system. Yoon Jikwan connects the solution to these problems with their relationships to Korean society’s division system, as well as Korean society’s the dual task of introducing and overcoming modernization. We expect that the large question he puts to universities will stimulate fruitful discussions: Whether to participate in Americanization, a global trend in this globalizing world, and contribute to the acceleration of social inequality, or to strengthen their public nature and contribute to the creation of a new and more just world.

Addressing the current controversy over Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island, Koo Gi Yeon examines our society’s understanding of Islamism. The negative image of this religion, created by a segment of Korean media and a minority of conservative Christians, is fundamentally a distorted self-portrait. The author urges that we reasonably face and treat refugees in our society, since they have already become an integral part of it, by ridding ourselves of Islamophobia.

In the “Literary Criticism” section, Jung Hong-su carefully explores the fictional world of US novelist Philip Roth, who passed away in May. While cherishing his literature deeply, Chung also engagingly criticizes the limitedness of his “singularity”: that his novels pursue the “fantasy of a world without an outside.”

In “On the Scene,” Kim Young Sun diagnoses the current lively state of feminist publications, focusing on graphic novels and young adult literature. She convincingly demonstrates how passionate responses from female readers raise awareness of the public nature of books and the social responsibility inherent in publication.

Sadly, elder novelist Choi In-hun passed away in July, after a lengthy struggle with illness. Jeong Cheol-hun, who visited him before his death, contributes an essay on him. Deeply moved by his heartfelt memories of late Mr. Choi, we also appreciate his reporting on Mr. Choi’s life and character, revealed in family testimonials.

In “Focus on Authors,” we feature novelist Kim Geum-hee and her recent book Kyung-ae’s Mind. Poet Park Yeon-jun contributes an essay based on her interview with the novelist. Her contribution carefully leads us to a better understanding of the author and her work. Although the two writers are active in different genres, the “mind” they share as writers resonates between them—sometimes in a lively fashion, and other times painfully.

Scholar of Japanese literature Nam Sang-Wook, poet Lee Yeung-gwang, and literary critic Hwang Jung-a contribute to the “Literary Focus” section through a lively discussion of a half-dozen recently published books of poetry and fiction. We believe their frank and passionate discussions will more than meet our readers’ expectations.

We are happy to introduce several new faces brightening the world of Korean literature. Kwak Moon-Young, Chang Ryu-jin, and Jeon Ki-hwa are winners of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the categories of poetry, fiction, and criticism.

Also, our creative writing sections are rich with new poems by 11 authors, works that embody the liveliness of the world of Korean poetry, as well as new short stories by Kang Hwa-gil, Kim Jung-a, and Ha Sung-ran. We believe that readers will also appreciate the third installment of Kim Ryeo-ryeong’s novel A Week. In “Book Reviews,” we present reviews of 10 recently published works, both domestic and overseas. We thank the reviewers for offering precious guides to these significant works, by taking on the task of writing short and pertinent reviews.

Poet Kim Hyun and novelist Kim Hye-jin were selected as winners of the 36th Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. We celebrate their achievements, giving both encouragement and congratulations. At the same time, we are publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature and the judges’ comments. Please look forward to our announcement of the winner, which we will publish in the winter issue of Changbi, after a final deliberation.

 

Even during a summer of unprecedentedly hot weather, many events continued to occur in and around Korea. Among them, grand phrases like “a declaration of the end of war,” “peace treaty,” and “establishment of diplomatic relations between North Korea and the US” have been more frequently mentioned than they were before. We must continue to watch for how they will unfold. At the same time, though, because an accumulation of small efforts can lead to a large result, it is important for all of us to apply ourselves in whatever field we work in. We at Quarterly Changbi promise to join forces with our readers in imagining the fullest of possibilities.

 

Kang Kyung-seok