[Editorial] The Revolution Isn’t Over: After Reading Didi’s Umbrella

The Quarterly Changbi 183, Spring 2019

 

 

Is the Candlelight Revolution that began in October 2016 and brought about the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the launching of the Moon Jae-in government, still going on? Watching the murky domestic political situation, we wonder if something like a revolution even happened. At the same time, in anticipation of the second North Korea-US summit, we can sense a clear movement in our society toward dramatic progress in inter-Korean relationships and a grand transformation on the Korean peninsula. In addition, when we consider the continuing societal efforts to eradicate deep-rooted evils, the Me-Too movement resisting gender-discriminatory practices, and the Gapjil (“power-tripping”) resistance movement against outdated and authoritarian organizational culture, the revolution is clearly not over. In fact, at this crucial juncture of great change, it is essential for us to rethink the meaning of a revolution. And, just in time, Hwang Jung-eun’s Didi’s Umbrella, a collection of two novellas (Changbi, 2019), raises the same question.

What stands out in these two novellas, d and Nothing to be Talked About, is their unique ways of looking at a revolution. Instead of presenting a new concept of revolution, Hwang looks at existing revolutionary movements and views them from an oblique angle. Also, by narrating and critiquing the images and movements captured from this oblique angle, rather than simply describing them, she leads the readers to the construction of a new concept of revolution—one not saturated by the institutions, affects, or thoughts of the old world. For example, in d, Hwang asks us to think how we should begin a real revolution, if the apocalyptic concept of revolution that the character Park Jo-bae proposes, like a missionary, is a fraudulent one, full of bravado with no substance.

Nothing to be Talked About, which deals with revolution more directly, features three revolutionary moments in recent Korean history. The most obvious is the recent Candlelight Revolution. Above all, the structure of the novella, which begins and ends on the day of the Constitutional Court’s decision for Park Geun-hye’s dismissal, highlights this revolution. However, the candlelight demonstration scene is presented only briefly (Chapter 11), and the narrator’s attitude toward it is far from that of an enthusiastic participant. After passing by a man holding a picket with the phrase “Evil Woman Out,” the narrator can’t help blaming herself for not responding to it appropriately. Then, in the last chapter (Chapter 12), she says:

 

How will people remember?

People said that the revolution would be completed on the day of impeachment, that we would win after having never won—from the Donghak Peasant Revolution, the People’s Joint Association, the April 19 Revolution to the June Uprising in 1987…. Is today that day? The day when the revolution is completed? (313-14)

 

The narrator does not directly challenge this opinion of other people, but she also has reservations about the position that the Candlelight Revolution was a true revolution. And so readers find themselves wondering if these people’s view of history and revolution is correct.

Another revolutionary moment is the 1996 Yonsei University Struggle, when the so-called civilian Kim Young-sam government raided and suppressed in an atrocious military style the sixth August 15 Reunification Grand Festival, jointly held by the South Korean Federation of University Students Councils and a North Korea-friendly international Korean youth organization. Quoting newspaper articles vividly depicting the scenes, Hwang describes, in her characteristically affective style, how students, herded by the police blockade, tear gas bombing, and violent attacks, spent days, locked up in a building. A symbolic episode that shows how the narrator felt about the Yonsei University Struggle is the story of L, a woman student, who had to spend those days wearing pants smeared with her menstrual blood. After this event, L suffers from the aftermath of this traumatic incident; but even her activist friends, who were locked up with her, including the narrator, do not understand her. As Julia Kristeva’s concept of “the abject” suggests, the menstrual blood here evokes L’s misery from being excluded from the community she belonged to. Perhaps influenced by this same incident, the narrator also appears to have experienced the Yonsei University Struggle as a traumatic incident. This seems to be related to the reason why the narrator does not appear to be bothered by the North Korea-friendly political stance of the student organization that led this struggle.

The third revolutionary moment depicted is the narrator’s participation in a feminist movement after the Yonsei University Struggle. She made this choice, above all, because she “felt the student movement was over (186),” as the aversion to student activists spread both within and outside colleges. Also importantly, though, she feels she could not survive the existing activist culture, seeped as it is in male-centered customs and practices, even if she continued to actively participate in the student movement. But if she devotes herself to a feminist movement, after leaving the student movement, does it mean she has given up on the revolution? For the narrator, the most important guideline for her actions as an activist is her wish to give women and minorities—sexual minorities, the disabled, children, people who are invisible to mainstream men—a place where they can feel proud and claim their fair share. This wish makes her to feel connected in solidarity with the weak, those who suffer from the Yongsan Tragedy and the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

By revealing the reasons why it is difficult for Korean society to change fundamentally, through the incidents of oppressing, excluding, hating, and power-tripping, women and minorities show us the loci where we should wage fights in our everyday lives. One of these loci that stand out in Nothing to be Talked About is the relationship between a daughter and father. The narrator vividly captures her father’s life and actions from the perspective of a daughter, the weaker one on three levels: in the relationship between a parent and child, between elder and younger, and men and women. Before she becomes aware of the harmful effects of a patriarchal relationship, she is feeling sorry for him; but after her growing awareness, she realizes that her father has been cowardly all along, and feels angry toward him.

The big task that Nothing to be Talked About leaves us with might be stated in the question: How can a feminist movement and the Candlelight Revolution meet so that each can fully fulfill its revolutionary potential? As the narrator of this novella realizes during her participation in protests regarding the Sewol Ferry Disaster and the Candlelight demonstrations, the feminist movement alone, isolated from a revolutionary political movement, cannot transform the entire Korean society. But without the vital energy of the ongoing feminist movement and the movement against “power-tripping,” how long could the Candlelight Revolution go on? Even if it continued, its driving force would be significantly reduced. In fact, from the very beginning of the Candlelight Revolution, the feminist movement and the movement against the abuse of power, which have condemned violence and hatred toward women and social minorities, and tried to rectify male-centered oppressive practices and customs, have been its strong bastions, together with the overall movement to eradicate deep-rooted evils.

A murky political situation is what the forces that try to destroy the Candlelight Revolution want. As the mischiefs and counterattacks by reactionary forces could be anticipated, the Candlelight government and the ruling party should persevere and handle them in a dignified manner, rather than using them as an excuse to avoid critical political reforms like the amendment of the Election Law. It is now time for us not to leave this question of political reform to the hands of the government and ruling party, but for various civilian movements to collaborate in order to pressure them to carry on with critical political reform measures. Although the Candlelight Revolution is ongoing, it is standing at a critical crossroads.

 

In celebration of the centennial of the March 1st Movement this year, the feature article in this current issue tries to re-illuminate this movement’s significance, in relation to the ongoing Candlelight Revolution rather than considering it separately. Considering the March 1st Movement as an incomplete revolution to establish a democratic republic, Lim Hyung-taek understands it as both the beginning of full-fledged modernity in Korea and the origin of a left-right ideological rift, the clue to bridge the gap which became visible only in the contemporary Candlelight Revolution. Through the overview of the evolution of people’s movement up until the March 1st Movement and the movement for ideological consolidation since the March 1st, this article clarifies its position in its intensive re-illumination of Cho So-ang’s and Hong Myeong-hui’s arguments for centrism.

Rethinking the world-historical significance of the March 1st Movement from the perspectives of an interconnected East Asia and the double project of modernity, Baik Young Seo re-examines the meaning of the that movement. He meticulously analyzes different domestic conditions, including trends in thought and religion, in the three East Asian countries of Japan, China, and Korea. At the same time, noting the meaning of the phrase “representatives of the people,” which emerged during the development of the March 1st Movement, he argues that this movement was a “revolution that is continuing to be relearned” in the sense that the result of grand transformations underway from the March 1st Movement to the Candlelight Revolution reveals itself as an “incremental achievement” throughout the entire period. Discovering the inner connection between the March 1st Movement and the Candlelight Revolution, in their common concern for a “democratic republic,” based on popular sovereignty, Lee Nam Ju persuasively argues that the slogan of “democratic republic” that emerged during the Candlelight demonstrations indicates a new political possibility, rather than being a signifier of the movement’s backwardness. Also, while analyzing the process from the March 1st Movement to the Candlelight Revolution in reference to Alain Badiou’s concept of “truth procedures,” Lee argues that the significance of this process can be fully explained only by understanding it in terms of Korea’s double project of modernity. In Lee’s view, we also need to build a Korean peninsula system, based on a South-North confederation, in order to ensure the progress of the Candlelight Revolution.

In the Dialogue section, we examine major novellas and short stories by young writers who have recently shown lively creative activities, with keywords of gender, labor, and generation. Literary critics Kang Kyung-seok, Kang Jee-hee, Seo Young-in, and Lee Cheol Joo engaged in a lively conversation about such questions as: in what way fiction published in the 2010s is different from previous works; what it means for gender awareness to become widespread and for queer narratives to increase; and how Korean society corresponds with Korean fiction from the perspective of labor. It is a passionate discussion, through which we can learn how changes in recent fiction interact with contemporary social reality.

In the Literary Criticism section, we reflect on the world of Shin Dong-yup’s poetry, commemorating the 50th year of his passing. Song Jong-won thoughtfully examines how Shin’s poems, written in a simple and easy style, can enrich the present, and thereby acquire an historical perspective, and might encourage neighborly love. In addition, through his discussion of Shin’s poetry, Song makes a suggestion about what shape our present should take in this time of grand national transformation.

In the Articles section, Kim Jong-yup illuminates the meaning of a transformative middle way in the context of international discourse. By comparing and contrasting Paik Nak-chung’s division system theory and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, Kim highlights the significance of the concept of a transformative middle way. Also, by making cogent distinctions between a transformative middle way and liberalism, he points out the latter’s ambiguity, while persuasively arguing how the former’s self-controlled incrementalism is transformative from the perspective of practice. Cheon ByungYou discusses the future of labor in our “second mechanical age,” represented by artificial intelligence and digital platforms. After examining how automation during the industrial age differed from that in the contemporary world, he presents our current tasks through various examples of digital labor platforms. Cheon proposes that we imagine a new future in which we live harmoniously with robots, rather than vaguely worrying about the possibility of them replacing us.

“On the Scene” examines various social issues in and around Korea. Remembering the process of making the documentary film Two Doors, which deals with the Yongsan Tragedy, and evoking the situation in which the victims’ families have had to keep experiencing political deaths, and our attitude toward it, Kim Ilran, a film director and social activist, questions the meaning of the past ten years. Although Han Jae-kak, the director of the Energy and Climate Policy Institute, agrees that carbon is the main culprit in climate change, he also questions the common approach to the problem that attempts to solve it by charging a price for carbon emissions. While criticizing our present reality, in which technology focuses entirely on carbon, he argues boldly that we break away from the existing system dependent on mass production and mass consumption and instead reduce the consumption of energy altogether. We also feature a field report of the anti-base movement in Okinawa by C. Douglas Lummis, a long-time activist on this issue. A recent development in the situation that this movement against the construction of the base, which lacks both a political cause and scientifically-verified security, has met is surprising and interesting.

In an essay highly meaningful to all of us who love Korean art, Professor Yu Hong-jun has offered a biographical sketch commemorating the late Mr. Kim Yoon-su, who passed away in November 2018. Based on testimonies of Mr. Kim’s families, friends, and acquaintances gathered by Professor Yu, a close friend, he offers us an accurate overview of Mr. Kim’s life as the pioneer of Korean art who served as the CEO of Changbi, president of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and director of the Federation of Korean Art Organizations.

Creative writing in the current issue is filled with new, spring-like energy. For poetry, we invited 12 lively young poets, with distinctive characters, including Kwak Moon-Young, the winner of last year’s Changbi Award for Young Writers. The fiction corner is also rich with fascinating short stories, by Kim Jung-hyuk, Baik Sou Linne, and Hwang Jung-eun, as well as a novella by Kim Yudam.

For “Focus on Authors,” literary critic Park Hye-jin met poet Park Jun, whose second collection of poems, We Might Be Watching the Rainy Season Together Apart, was recently published. Listening attentively to the poet’s story, in which he describes how, after the manuscript of the first collection of his poems was ready to be published, he kept going back and revising them for a year, Park Hye-jin relates how she sympathetically understands the poet’s wish to go beyond his truth.

In “Literary Focus,” literary critic Kim Su-i and novelist Ha Sung-ran engaged in a lively conversation with literary critic Kim Mi-jung about six newly published books of poems and fiction, sharing their vivid responses and broad thinking.

The current issue’s “Book Reviews” offers an interesting and rich guide to new books and ideas. In-depth reviews by nine specialists in their fields, including Kang Yeonsil, who will review scientific books throughout this year, open up for us various new possibilities. As in previous years, we announce the winners of the 17th Daesan College Literary Awards in this spring issue, and also publish their winning works. We look forward to watching the bold steps these young writers take as they enter the Korean literary world.

 

While being re-illuminated by the light of the Candlelight Revolution, the revolutionary character of the March 1st Movement seems to have become more vivid in this centennial year. Changbi will also try our best to help in the work of achieving a grand transformation on the Korean peninsula, using the revolutionary resources we have gathered over the past century.

 

Han Ki-wook