[Editorial] The Road the Candlelight Revolution Should Take

The Quarterly Changbi 182, Winter 2018



Two winters ago, candlelights that illuminated night streets all across Korea achieved the impeachment of unjust power and the launching of a new government. Many people called this dramatic development the Candlelight Revolution, and the new government officially declared it would follow up on this revolution. However, the two-year period since then has chipped away, little by little, at this sense of ongoing revolutionary change. Many people are now questioning whether or not changes deserving the name “revolution” are underway in our society, and increasingly more people find the nomenclature “Candlelight Revolution” rather awkward.

Our imagination about revolution tends to include wishes that cannot be entirely fulfilled in real life, and this also tends to cause people who cheered for a revolutionary event to become disappointed and disillusioned with time. There is no guarantee that the Candlelight Revolution will avoid this fate. However, the Candlelight happened in a different way from past revolutions that attempted to build a new society based on a radically new model. The peaceful regime change resulting from the Candlelight movement, which strictly observed existing Constitutional procedures, was connected to a revolutionary sensibility only because there was a very strong popular will beneath it for severing our society’s ties with the past—a will much stronger than the will in other past upheavals in modern Korean history, and with which a majority of Koreans sympathized. Therefore, we should consider the Candlelight Revolution not as a revolution in which we can change the social structure overnight, according to a pre-conceived model of a society, but as a long-term project in which we gradually carry out concrete social reforms, based on our agreements on the direction of the change. Therefore, when we evaluate the Candlelight Revolution’s achievement, we have to do so based on whether and how much progress is being made toward this agreed-upon direction. Also, in order to push forward the Candlelight Revolution, to a grand transformation, we have to discern the elements that obstruct this progress, and then overcome them step by step. We need to be cautious about misjudging the current situation, according to customary or romantic concepts of revolution, and demeaning the popular desire and will for a grand transformation that is included in the nomenclature of “revolution.”

For the past two years, significant changes have been made. Above all, we began the Korean peninsula-style reunification process, in which both the South and North expanded cooperation and associations peacefully, gradually, and step by step. In comparison to the extremely heightened tensions only a year ago, there is no denying this is a dramatic change—and that it would have been impossible without the Candlelight Revolution. Considering the fact that the Defense Security Command deliberated on martial law ahead of the impeachment decision, an extreme military and political confrontation between the South and North would have offered a surer excuse and condition for any coup d’état attempt, without the Candlelight Revolution. Fortunately, the revolution entirely changed the direction of our society’s progression, and the change in inter-Korean relationship, based on this change, in turn, offers a motive force to move the revolution forward. The most important task in the succession of the Candlelight Revolution is to not regress in this current, and to have this Korean-peninsula-style reunification process move forward smoothly.

In Korean society, movements to build a society qualitatively different from the present one were also reinforced from below, after the Candlelight. As social sensibilities about various practices of discrimination and oppression make dramatic strides, activities to directly challenge supposedly solid patriarchal and gender-discriminatory views and practices in our society are actively underway. The continuing disclosure and societal condemnation of cases of the abuse of power by powerful elements lend important momentum to the progress of democracy in our everyday lives. These changes, which would not have happened that easily without the Candlelight Revolution, are destroying the structure of discrimination and oppression that has been almost invisible in our society. Thus, we can consider that the Candlelight Revolution is still going strong, because our society’s will and momentum for change are being reinforced more than any time previously, even though many obstacles still exist that we have to overcome.

Nonetheless, currently, we cannot help being concerned about signs that the societal will for change is weakening and the direction for change is being lost in areas where progress should have already taken place. In particular, we should ask for responsibility within the government and ruling party, which officially professed to move forward with the Candlelight Revolution. In the areas of economy and society, while the government and the ruling party are mired in debates on policies and personnel matters, the task of fundamental change in the development paradigm, a change that was raised and agreed upon during the Candlelight Revolution, is bogged down. Certainly, the government and ruling party cannot govern while ignoring short-term economic achievements, and that they have to make an effort to resolve people’s concerns about our current economic situation. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for them to find the right path if they simply hold onto familiar economic stimulus measures, depending on the cooperation of the conglomerates, or if they are dragged down by unjustified conservative criticism that blames the yet-to-be-implemented income-led growth theory for the current economic difficulty. What we need is sincere and serious collective reflection on how the Korean society and economy should be changed. In particular, the government and ruling party should firmly establish the keynote of our economic and social policies based on people’s passionate wish for a community-based society, rather than simply quantitative growth—and consistently pursue it.

Above all, the failure to institutionalize the achievements of the Candlelight Revolution is the most important and direct cause of the difficulty our society is experiencing in moving forward the revolution. Although all political parties pledged to amend the Constitution in a more democratic direction, this move is yet to be carried out—not only because of the opposition parties’ irresponsibility, but also due to a lack of will to follow through with the promise of the Candlelight Revolution on the part of the ruling party and government. Constitutional amendment and electoral reform would be doomed without the resolution of the government and ruling party to give up their vested interests; but they have not shown a clear will to do so. If they exhibited a will to introduce the election laws that will greatly reduce the number of districts and more accurately reflect the popular will, the Constitutional amendment discussion could have been more energized and the ruling party and government could have gained higher political trust for cooperative governance. Unfortunately, the ruling party and government have given the impression that, drunk with record-high approval ratings, they have tried to reinforce their vested interests—and this has provided the opposition parties with an excuse for expanding political strife. Although electoral reform is being discussed again, we cannot help being concerned about the possibility of a repetition of the precedent in which clashes among interests and within political parties led to a change for the worse. Only when the government and ruling party show a clear will to relinquish their vested interests can we expect a breakthrough in this area.

In this perspective, whether the current government and ruling party can create this change before the April 2020 general election will be a touchstone for their qualification to be the successors of the Candlelight Revolution. What we should keep in mind is that in the political arena, the voice of those with vested interests tends to become stronger, the nearer an election approaches. The reactionary forces that want to continue their vested interests under the division-based system will make more active efforts to devalue the revolution, while those who professed their will to promote the spirit of the revolution could actually disrupt its progress because of their political interests. In other words, we have now reached an important crossroads for the Candlelight Revolution. It is a situation that asks citizens to pay more attention to the future and to re-examine what we should do, as we greet the second anniversary of the Candlelight Revolution.


A new form of revolution requires a new sensibility, which can be found and developed only through carefully capturing the changes in perceptions about one’s own life and the world, and through discovering something truly new in them. The grand transformation that we call the Candlelight Revolution is no exception, and therefore our discussion about it should not be limited to political or policy discourse in the narrow sense. The feature articles in the current issue continue this struggle to discover and enhance these new senses and sensibilities in literature. Focusing on changes in subjects, Han Ki-wook finds the possibility of a literature commensurate with the Candlelight Revolution in the works of Hwang Jung-eun, Jung Mi Kyung, and Kim Keum-hee. Discussing the changes in existing subjects or the formation of new subjects, Han pays attention to the role of our minds, which can endure negative elements in the affect, which in itself has the power of being either positive and negative, and which can imbue life with new vitality. While exploring romantic relationship to find out what makes people continue such relationships, even though they can never repeat the most brilliant moments of these relationships, he presents the new concept of the “mind-centered narrative.”

In order to signify the candlelight as a revolution, we need to constantly be aware and reflect on the standpoint of our current position—and reading literary works can be one approach to this task. Literary criticism has also been struggling to break free of its own hermetic world. Yang Kyung Eon asks provocative questions about whether or not the current work of literary criticism is enough for the task of signifying this struggle. Yang’s arguments that “feminist literature” ironically can obstruct our imagination about women’s lives and that the public discussion advocating for imagination outside of literary institutions can reinforce the above-reality status of literary criticism are engaging and worthy of our attention.

Tracing the contention between social exploration for national tasks and literature since the March 1 Movement, the centennial of which we will celebrate next year, Kang Kyung-seok reminds us of what tasks literature has to take on in our times. In particular, he analyzes Midang’s pro-Japanese poems and discusses how the pursuit of literary autonomy became refracted because of the colonial situation. Through this analysis, he offers not only new literary critical criteria for the debate around Midang’s achievements, but also important suggestions for our exploration of literary possibilities in this new phase that has opened up with the Candlelight Revolution.

In “Literary Criticism,” we present an article by Francis Mulhern, a renowned English literature scholar, who reflects on the place and role of literary criticism in a time of its own crisis. Mulhern critically reads the arguments of Joseph North, who classifies modern literary studies into three periods, and examines them, in order to restore the sense of a critical mind. This article stimulates our thoughts not only about literature but also our world in general, as its practical agenda of going beyond the current paradigm of progressive literary studies in English-American scholarship expands into the consideration of the nature and place of literature and criticism, and that of the direction of our entire society and world. Lee Sun-ok’s critical article examines how three periods of Korean literature have been connected with the feminist movement, through analyzing the works of Kim Jin-ok, Park Wansuh, and Cho Nam-ju, sharing similar concerns to those in feature articles in this issue. The way Lee classifies and discusses the changes in feminist literature according to Martha Nussbaum’s concept of emotion is highly engaging.

“Dialogue” features a conversation about education for peace and reunification in the current stage of the inter-Korean relationship development by Moon A-Young, Jang YongHoon, Jeong Do-sang, and Jeong Yong-Min. They discuss how education for reunification should not only be appropriate for our current situation, but also share a future-oriented vision for the Korean peninsula beyond the restoration of national unity. This comprehensive conversation on peace and reunification is picked up by Suh Bo-Hyuk in “Article.” Continuing the comprehensive discussion on the strategic significances of lower-level, inter-Korean associations in Paik Nak-chung’s article in our previous issue, Suh examines the sustainability of the inter-Korean association and the prospects for reunification. We hope this discussion will continue and we promise that we will play a necessary role in this discussion.

“On the Scene” focuses on the US midterm elections and regional literature. Kim Dongsuk, who has led civic empowerment and voter movements in the US for a long time, contributes a vivid, live report on how Trump’s election strategy works and how the result of recent midterm elections would affect US policy on the Korean peninsula. Son Namhoon presents our grave reality, in which even the egalitarian concept of “region” is gradually more marginalized and has failed to free us from Seoul-centrism, through various examples, and argues for our conscious efforts to nurture a regional sensibility in order to break through this reality.

We again feature a variety of remarkable works of creative writing. Readers will encounter expansive and various worlds by 12 poets, from newcomer Choi Ji-eun to elder Shin Kyung-rim. “Fiction” is also rich, with short stories by Park Min-jung, Park Sun-woo, and Choi Eunyoung, a novella by Park Sang Young, and the last installment of Kim Ryeo-ryeong’s novel, which has been greatly appreciated and loved by our readers. For “Focus on Authors,” literary critic Jung Ju-a met novelist Lee Ki-ho, who has had two books published recently: a collection of short stories, Kang Min-ho: A Church Brother Kind to Everyone, and a novel, A Full Account of the Mogyang-myeon Arson Incident. A conversation in which the boundary between a novelist who often features himself in his work and a novelist in his literary works is a keyword leads us to a deeper and richer understanding of Lee’s works. We are also curious to see how his writings will develop in the future, since he wishes to be free from a style in which he problematizes himself. In “Literary Focus,” Hwang Jung-a and Lee Yeong-gwang continue a conversation with invited guest and prominent literary critic Lee Kyung-jae from the previous issue. Through a lively and illuminating discussion about three new books of poetry and three new novels, they help us understand them better.

By introducing various new books and offering discerning views, “Book Reviews” is another window into our world. With Yu Hong-jun’s discerning and knowledgeable appreciation of Park Hee-Byung, Critique and Interpretation of Neunghogwan Yi In-sang’s Paintings and Calligraphic Works, and other reviews of notable novels and scholarly works, this section is particularly rich in this issue. We sincerely thank Kim Ki-heung and Lee Jung-sook for contributing to this section for the entire year.

The 33rd Manhae Prize in Literature went to Kim Hae-ja’s book of poetry Hae-ja’s Fortunetelling House, for its poetic renewal of folk sentiments and its innovative way of thinking. Also, Park Sung-woo was chosen for the 20th Baeksok Prize for literature for his book of poetry Smiling Practice, for its creative depiction of rhythms of human lives in harmony with nature. We lavish our congratulations on both winners for their precious achievements in Korean literature.


The year 2018 also marked a watershed in modern Korean history—which has already been full of twists and turns. Although we don’t know what is in store for us after this dramatic year, we know it surely will not be simple or easy to free ourselves from the shackles of national division. Hoping to help our readers prepare for a new year, by evaluating what we achieved in 2018 and what difficulties lie ahead, we send out another issue. We hope that a warm spring is awaiting us at the end of this winter, and that we can persevere through this winter with enthusiasm and passion in order to create that spring.

Lee Nam Ju