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[Editorial] An Editorial Conversation: Dream Big, But Work in Reality

The Quarterly Changbi 200, Summer 2023


Kim Young-sun (moderator; “Kim” hereafter):  We are celebrating the 200th publication of Quarterly Changbi (“Changbi” hereafter) in this issue. Except for the period when its publication was not possible, due to either the banning of its sale or the revocation of its registration, we have consistently engaged our readers every season, since its first issue in 1966. In celebration of this 200th season, we begin this issue with a special conversation between the current editor-in-chief, Lee Nam Ju, and his predecessor and a current editorial advisor, Han Ki-wook. I am Kim Young-sun, one of the current editors in the Changbi publication department. Although a “conversation” usually implies two people exchanging remarks, today I will ask questions of both of you. Please introduce yourselves briefly.


Han Ki-wook (“Han” hereafter):  Hello, my name is Han Ki-wook, and I am a literary critic. I joined the Changbi editorial board in the winter of 1998, retired as its editor-in-chief in 2021, and currently serve as one of its editorial advisors. This spring I also retired from a professorship at Inje University, where I taught for many decades—so I am enjoying a somewhat less busy life these days.


Lee Nam Ju (“Lee” hereafter):  Hello, my name is Lee Nam Ju. I have been serving as the editor-in-chief of the Changbi since 2022. My field is political science, and I am a professor at the Sungkonghoe University Department of Chinese Language and Literature. I’m glad that I can celebrate this occasion by talking with Professor Han Ki-wook.


Current Korean Society: What Is the Nature of its Crisis?


Kim:  While working on the 200th issue, I took a look at previous milestone issues. What seems clear to me is that the history of Changbi cannot be separated from the ups-and-downs of modern Korean history, even if one tried, and that concerns about contemporary Korean society were salient even in relatively more-recent milestone issues. For example, the 100th issue (summer 1998) was published in the middle of the IMF financial crisis, while the 150th issue (winter 2010) came out in the midst of a serious regression in democracy under the Lee Myung-bak administration. Now, in celebrating the 200th issue, we also cannot simply sit back and enjoy the occasion. How would you assess our current reality?


Lee:  Although our current situation is worrisome in many ways, I would first like to emphasize that this publication of the 200th issue is historically highly significant and worthy of congratulations. Although a quarterly would normally celebrate its 100th issue after 25 years, it took 32 years for Changbi to publish its 100th issue. Fortunately, since then, we have not encountered any situation where we had to stop its publication due to political interventions. Meanwhile, a considerable political democratization was accomplished, and Changbi clearly played a significant role in enabling it. However, we might say that the situation in Korean society has been even more rapidly changing lately. We can list so many momentous events, such as the IMF financial crisis, the First Inter-Korean Summit in 2000, the rise of South Korea in international status, amidst the worldwide trend of globalization, an intensified polarization of Korean society going on hand-in-hand with such a trend, social change based on the Candlelight Protest, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Although Korean society has faced many very difficult challenges throughout this process, I would say that we have definitely made steps forward, while breaking longstanding historical fetters. The current situation should be considered as a stumbling block in the grand process of Korean society’s progress, rather than as a simple regression. In particular, one of the most fundamental causes of the current administration’s repeatedly regressive behavior is a last-stage resistance by vested interests to the achievement of subjecthood of citizens, as heightened by the Candlelight Revolution, and their demands for change. I believe it is important for us to strengthen our capabilities, so that we can subdue such a resistance and lead our history onto another phase.


Han:  I mostly agree with you, yet it is extremely painful that we have the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in the current situation, when the capitalist world order is being reorganized, and when, therefore, we have to handle inter-Korean relationships and diplomatic relations with neighboring countries extremely wisely. Even more worrisome, as media and academia have been considerably more incorporated into vested-interest groups, it has become harder for the truth of the current situation to reach citizens. The Roh Tae Woo administration’s “Northern Policy,” Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” and “Six-Party Talks,” and Roh Moo-hyun’s aborted policy where South Korea was envisioned to play a “balancer” role in Northeast Asia were all efforts to maintain a diplomatic balance among powerful countries; but the Yoon Suk Yeol administration leans excessively toward a US-Japan-ROK alliance. A Korea-Japan Summit is scheduled for today [May 7, 2023], but I am deeply concerned about what conversations it will involve.


Lee:  It seems clear that, amidst intensifying US-China strategic competition, and a rupturing international society, the Yoon administration is jumping on the bandwagon of conflict and confrontation, aggravating them further, and with haste. Still, I’d like also to emphasize that we have to solve this problem through changes in Korean society. I believe that we can find a solution to this problem by approaching it from the perspective that the emergence of the Yoon administration is an anomaly in the process of the Candlelight Revolution, which is and must still be going on. What I mean is that it is important for us to be aware of the power that brings about change. For example, during the Park Geun-hye administration, one of the most important inflection points, until the emergence of the Candlelight Protest, was the government’s attempt to standardize Korean history textbooks. President Park then mentioned “the normalization of [our] soul,” arguing that we needed to learn history correctly. Although it did not directly influence the political phase at the time, it clearly made people think that something was off or wrong. I think that these days, too, citizens are well aware, to a considerable extent, of the problems with the current administration. Although we have the task of transforming that awareness into action and a movement, I also believe that change has already begun in the sense that many people agree about the seriousness of the current situation.


Han:  You recently wrote an article on the changes in China (“Changes in China after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,” Hwanghae Munhwa, Spring 2023). It seems important to me for us to understand whether the world will go with a bipolar system, based on opposition and conflict between China and the US, or a multipolar system that includes BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the EU. What do you think about it?


Lee:  I still have the same opinion as I did in my article for the spring 2021 issue of Changbi (“Whither US-China Strategic Competition?”). These days, the confrontation will not be ideological and military, like during the US-USSR Cold War era, but instead a long-term, low-intensity, complex competition in various arenas, including economy and technology. There is of course the possibility of military clashes, but it is more likely that other elements, such as social resilience and technology, play a more important role in competition. In Korea, many people think that China will be quickly defeated in this competition, due to its many social limitations; but in fact China has considerable power to endure long-term competition. Recently, Professor Graham Allison at Harvard also emphasized that growth would continue in China for a while (“The Inconvenient Truth About U.S. Growth,” Barron’s, April 23, 2023). What is required of us is to assess this situation in a balanced way. If we ally ourselves with the US only, it will likely put us in a very dangerous situation.


Han:  China’s power has been growing not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Recently, Saudi Arabia and Iran achieved the normalization of their diplomatic relations through China’s mediation. While we are undergoing the Ukraine War, China has emerged as a powerful country, threatening the US in international relations by greatly increasing its areas of economic cooperation and the system of payment by the yuan. In this situation, it looks extremely dangerous that the Yoon administration subserviently follows the US, while treating the US-Japan-ROK alliance as a fait accompli. Despite this danger, too few of our media criticize it, and the same is true of our politicians.


Lee:  While the competition between the US and China persists, its phases will continue to fluctuate. Sometimes, the US, and other times, China will look more influential. Accordingly, we should not assume that one of them will control the world order. We need to create a space in which we can move independently and autonomously. It is also important for Korea to support its goals and orientation with its power.


The Road of Grand Transformation


Kim: To us at Changbi, the phrase “grand transformation” has been an important keyword for a while now. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye through the Candlelight Revolution that began in late 2016 was literally a grand breakthrough. Various yearnings and desires of the citizens for such a grand transformation have erupted. However, since the launching of the Yoon administration, our tasks for this transformation seem to have become more complex and difficult. Please tell us how you assess the current situation and how you think we should walk the road of a grand transformation.


Han:  Although the 1987 system was overhauled through the Candlelight protest, the division system did not collapse. Regarding this, the breakdown of the 2019 North Korea-US Summit in Hanoi was extremely regrettable. Since then, with the inauguration of the Yoon administration, we have been regressing to the period before the 1987 system. In the short term, I think that many things will depend on how we enable the current administration to step down. While the Yoon administration was an anomalous event, resulting from the Candlelight Revolution, I think that the correction of this situation would also be done by the Candlelight Revolution. A mid- to long-term task of a grand transformation is, above all, one of simultaneously adapting to and overcoming the capitalist system, which is becoming more vicious as it is approaching its last phase. While the predatory and dispossessive nature of capital toward humans and natural ecology becomes more prominent, ecological destruction is intensifying, together with inequality in assets and income. In particular, since the 2008 financial crisis, the tendency for accumulation without reproduction is more prominent, that is, that of settler colonialists who treat workers as disposable, rather than continuing to exploit surplus value by guaranteeing the reproduction of the labor force. In terms of the business usage of natural resources, as the extractive approach that destroys the environment expands, irrecoverable areas are increasing in the ecological system. In the end, our reality is one where people’s lives and natural ecology cannot help being impoverished. So we need to find an appropriate way to respond to this reality. For example, we should perhaps focus the discussion more on policies about people’s livelihood, different from the previous concept of welfare: such as basic income, basic housing, basic healthcare, and social ecology policy breaking from developmentalism.


Lee:  From the political situation to inter-Korean relationship, changes in technology and industrial structure, and the climate crisis, not one of them is an easy task. So the solution to how we overcome them and pursue a grand transformation is not a simple one. Regarding this, I’d like to approach it from a slightly different angle. I think we need to have big aspirations in order to solve this problem, a certain wish or desire. To put it another way, we should neither be obsessed with individual problems nor be simply satisfied with criticizing what is wrong. When we assess the causes of the current situation, we should reflect on how well we were prepared to execute the passionate aspirations of the Candlelight Revolution in real life. Although many people talked and were excited about the revolution for a while, a cynical, wait-and-see attitude spread widely, because reality has not lived up to our expectations. However, when we look at history, revolution has never brought about conspicuous change immediately. While changes tend to occur through decades of faithful efforts, many people negated the demands of the Candlelight in only a few years, or else forgot that a change was underway. In particular, this tendency has stood out in the media, civic society, and intellectuals in the progressive camp. I believe this is the main cause of the current anomaly, meaning the emergence of the Yoon administration. In order to solve many of the problems we’re facing, in the end, what is important is to strengthen the capabilities of the Candlelight. So, we need to reflect deeply on whether we have not hastily become disappointed, pessimistic, and taken the attitude of wait and see.


Han: Looking back at the Candlelight Protest period, many people who voluntarily participated in the demonstration while creating a flexible way of doing it were likely those who experienced the life in our reality, nicknamed, “Hell Joseon,” and thus felt the sense of liberation during the period. I tried to capture those two sides with the concept of affect in literary criticism. The more we go down the road of the late capitalist period, the more intensified this affective nature will be. It is truly incredible and miraculous that there were neither radical and idealist slogans nor violent incidents during the long-term candlelight demonstrations. At the same time, it again pains me greatly, when I think of the fact that they were in a way living a hellish life.


Lee:  I feel the same. If I may add a little, when we published the 50th anniversary issue of Changbi, in spring 2016, the keyword “grand transformation” that we presented was not widely received. Even among progressive intellectuals, they tended to be easily disappointed with the high approval ratings of the conservative Park Geun-hye administration and more of them were cynical about the situation. It was only in the winter of that year that a new political phase began. So we should think about why even the progressive camp had neither the sensibility of transformation nor the ability to expect such a turn of events. I feel that an immediate and hasty response to a superficial situation cannot be an attitude of people who have the profound wish and yearning for grand transformation. We should be able to understand clearly the healthy undercurrents of our society and always try to figure out how we can strengthen these undercurrents.


On the Unique Union of Literature and Critical Arguments—and Changbi Discourses


Kim:  I believe it is our role at Changbi to publicize such undercurrents and to create new currents. In fact, Changbi has contributed to social change by publishing and discussing significant and polemical articles by many critical intellectuals throughout the various turns and twists in our society’s progress. Looking back at the 100 issues of Changbi since the 100th issue, what are the most memorable articles or moments for you?


Han:  As an editor, the 50th anniversary issue I worked on as editor-in-chief was the most memorable; but there is no issue that I don’t remember fondly, as I was taking care of every aspect of them, from feature articles and roundtables to book reviews. Unlike at many other magazines, at Changbi, editors read all the manuscripts together and give feedback to the writers. To us, this process of exchanging ideas with writers is important, and it was very satisfying to find a greatly improved manuscript after revision. It was also a particularly happy experience to discover and publish excellent work among the manuscripts sent to us. Korean Chinese author Geum Hee’s short story “Okhwa” (spring 2014) and poems by Lee Myeong Yun (spring 2021) were some of the examples I remember rewardingly. As a critic, I still remember vividly the first time I contributed a work of criticism about Korean literature (“Fiction and Film in Popular Culture,” spring 2001) and when I moderated a roundtable of defectors from North Korea (“North Korean Defectors’ Place in Korean Society,” summer 2015), although I didn’t know much about them. Other memorable experiences include the time I rashly presented an argument about “June 15th Literature” (“Reading New Reality in Korean Literature,” summer 2006) and was harshly criticized internally, and the time I made passionate counterarguments against arguments about the dismantling or uselessness of the novel.

             In relation to literary discourses, one of my most meaningful experiences was the discussion I had after Mr. Lee Jangwook and Ms. Jin Eun-young joined our editorial board in the mid-2000s. In this process, we published two interesting articles: one discussed lyricism different from previous aesthetics, both realism-based and lyrical aestheticism-based (Lee Jangwook, “Flowers Desert the World And,” summer 2005) and the other discussed the relationship between poetry and politics (Jin Eun-young, “Distribution of the Sensory,” winter 2008). As always, but even more so at that time, I felt as if I was standing on the field where Changbi was struggling with a new era, a new grammar of literature. The discussion about the relationship between poetry and politics continued for a while, raising echoes within and outside Changbi. I believe that Changbi’s realist poetics and theory of the double tasks of modernity were polished through this process.

             In the field of humanities and social sciences, the issue commemorating the centennial of the March 1st Movement (spring 2019), in which we newly illuminated the March 1st Movement as the colossal root of the Candlelight Revolution, was particularly meaningful to me. Professor Paik Nak-chung contributed an article, “March the First and Nation-Building Korean-Style,” to the next issue, by refining the same idea. It was an article arguing for the significant task of Korean-style nation-building. The same line of argument that traces the roots of the March 1st Movement back to the double tasks presented by the gaebyeok school of thought and Donghak movement appeared later in the Special Colloquy, “Seeking Donghak Again in Order to Ask Guidance for Our Way Forward,” by Kim Young-Oak, Park Maeng-soo, and Paik Nak-chung in the fall 2021 issue. This colloquy, worth listening to for its intellectual conversation, based on broad knowledge of both Eastern and Western literature, history, and philosophy, was also special in that it revealed the affinity between various Changbi discourses and the gaebyeok school of thought.


Lee: You have summarized important moments in Changbi’s history well. If I may add a little, what was most impressive to me was the argument on the novel that we presented. Although readers are deeply moved by novels, short stories had been considered as central in the genre of fiction in the literary field. As a reader, I was glad to see various broad possibilities of the novel actively discussed in the feature of the summer 2007 issue, “Let’s Open the Future of Korean Novel” and the feature of the summer 2012 issue, “Again, We Talk About the Novel.”

             In the discourse on society, above all, our arguments on the 1987 system played an important role in defining and discussing the nature of Korean society. Although it’s unclear when the term “1987 system” was first used, it spread widely after it was introduced and discussed importantly by Changbi in 2005. It was a time when postmodernism was the mainstream trend, so attempts to understand our society comprehensively were quashed. The 1987 system discourse reminded us that we need to understand our society in a comprehensive way. Personally, one of my most cherished memories, after joining its editorial board in 2004, is my articles’ contributions to the process in which Changbi published discourses, such as those about transformative centrism and coalition politics, the argument for the double tasks of modernity, and the theory of the division system, at important turning points in Korean society. This was possible, of course, not only because of my own motivation, but also thanks to acute criticism from colleagues at Changbi. A sort of fellowship culture, in which we encouraged one another to take on new challenges, was helpful to me; I hope to maintain this culture assiduously.


Kim:  Your remarks reveal Changbi’s characteristics very well. Changbi is a critical general magazine in which both literature and arguments are included. Readers sometimes wonder about this structure of Changbi; for example, some ask whether it is a literary magazine or not.


Lee:  As the stratification among special fields has accelerated, people may find the structure of Changbi, which combines literature with humanities and social sciences, strange. However, to take one example, Karl Marx’s theory could expand the scope of our thoughts because it considered society and literature together, rather than as separate. In my generation, actually, it is awkward to separate society and literature. But as this practice could be a challenge to new readers, contributors, or editors, we should give more thought to it. Since we don’t believe we should simply accept and follow specializing trends, we have tried to find a way to effectively introduce comprehensive thinking. Accordingly, we try to include literary criticism in a feature focused on humanities and social sciences and vice-versa. At the same time, we are also trying to think about ways of writing that can enhance readability.


Han:  Changbi’s structure that combines literature and arguments is a policy that we have maintained since our beginning—one that is related to our magazine’s mission. In fact, it is rare not only domestically but internationally for a magazine that introduces high-quality literary works together with important arguments, as well as literary criticism, to reach a 200th issue. Changbi’s motto is “Constant, Yet Renewed Everyday, and Renewed Everyday, Yet Constant.” In relation to the phrase “renewed everyday” we need to point out that literature, in particular, has the ability to perceive changing trends quickly. However, if we want to think about a period comprehensively, literary sensibilities are not enough. Rather, we also need the kind of thinking specific to an integrated humanities. Changbi’s discourses include theories of civic literature, minjok literature, world literature, and realism in the field of literature, and the theory of the division system, of transformative centrism, and of the double tasks of modernity, in the field of humanities and social sciences—yet they are all closely related. For example, I feel that, even if you start from the theory of realism, as a foundation, you cannot read or discuss a novel properly if you don’t know the theory of the double tasks of modernity.


Lee:  As you said, Changbi discourses were raised during the process of our responding to important social problems at different periods. However, they have often been misunderstood in the early stages of their emergence. For example, even the progressive camp did not like our theory of transformative centrism and the discourse of coalition politics during the Lee Myung-bak administration. This was because more people argued that Korean society was being restructured into one in which conservatives and progressives confront each other, as in the West. At that time, arguing for the necessity of making a coalition with the Democratic Party, then disheveled, required a considerable amount of courage within the progressive camp. Nevertheless, Changbi predicted that Korean society would regress considerably during the Lee administration, rather than being restructured into a conservative vs. progressive opposition, and argued that forces pursuing the overcoming of the division system, the foundation for the reactionary forces, needed to form a coalition in order to overcome it. In fact, this coalition politics created a considerable breakthrough to block the regression by the Lee administration. The same is true of the theory of double tasks: adapting to and overcoming modernity. At first, many criticized it, as they thought this was a regression from the vision of overcoming capitalism. However, these days more people agree consciously or unconsciously with this approach, which argues for both adapting to and overcoming modernity. This is the kind of attitude that we need in our lives as we try to break through limitations. I believe this attitude, where we neither are satisfied with unrealistic ideals nor simply follow reality, but pursue the road of transformation, is the gist of Changbi discourses.


The Way Forward After the 200th Issue of Changbi


Kim:  Our readers must be wondering what agendas we will pay attention to going forward. During the 50th anniversary, we declared our will to reinforce our ties with the field of action, and we have discussed various concerns, such as minority movements, gender inequality and care, and ecology. What are other social agendas that Changbi should pay attention to, and what editorial direction should we take after this 200th issue?


Lee:  What we are focusing on now is concretizing the goal of a grand transformation. This grand transformation was an important keyword, even in the 50th anniversary issue. This project is still going on. This transformation has many dimensions, from thought and policies to movements, and is related to various agendas, including the division of the country, care, ecology, gender, and region. As it is a broad goal, materializing it in real life is difficult. So I think it is more important to find ways to arrange various agendas that have been raised until now, rather than to find new agendas, and lead them to synergy. In that sense, I think we should focus on the dimension of a more concrete execution of the goal, while also keeping the grand transformation in view. At the same time, we are trying to study gaebyeok thought more deeply, so that we can benefit from it as a philosophical resource for this transformation. My wish is that by 2026, the 60th anniversary of Changbi, our society will have entered a new phase, after overcoming the resistance against the Candlelight Revolution. I hope that, with such a foundation, we will be able to present a new editorial direction that can help Korean society and the peninsula move forward to another stage. Although the Candlelight Revolution is currently facing resistance, a passionate yearning for fundamental change is also in the works. So we will continue to try to contribute to building a better Korean society until the 60th anniversary, while fighting against the regression of the Yoon administration.


Han:  That is also what I hope for. To add one or two thoughts: I think the other side of a grand transformation is extreme hardship. Although wars and conflicts, as well as the threat of a nuclear war, have existed for a long time, we are now facing even greater catastrophes related to the social ecological crisis. If climate crisis is added to messy politics in a country, it becomes a place where people can no longer live, resulting in massive migrations and refugees. Let alone the many Europe-bound refugees from Africa and the Middle East, including Sudan and Yemen, there have been thousands of Latin Americans who want to relocate to the US. My guess is that migrants wanting to enter Korean society will increase as well. Already, many of them come here as workers. Considering the falling birthrates in our country, we have the need to actively embrace those migrants. Accordingly, I’d like Changbi to pay attention to the problem of migration and refugees, in addition to various existing agendas, such as care, ecology, and gender. We may need to think about the possibility of forming a union of states, where we live collaboratively, with migrants enjoying equal rights based on our proper understanding of their lives. I’d also like to see more discussion about new technologies, like Chat GPT and AI. As presented by the Won Buddhist slogan “With this Great Opening of Matter, Let There Be a Great Opening of Spirit,” we need to respond to the changes in the material world in a two-pronged way, that is, both controlling and using it. It would be great if Changbi could guide us through a discussion of the kinds of mind study and mental training we need.


Kim:  After the 200th issue, what kinds of efforts do you think we need for literature? Can you discuss it, while evaluating the current Korean literary scene?


Han:  Despite Korean literature’s dwindling number of readers, I believe it has great capabilities and potential. The Korean Wave in movies, dramas, and music is supported by the brilliant resources of the Korean language and its literature. In traditional literary genres, feminist literature has been adding new vitality. In addition, prominent writers and masters of Korean literature continue to produce excellent work, offering a solid foundation for the future. As more literary works are translated and more readers are able to read Korean, I believe the importance of Korean literature will be better recognized on the world stage. I'd like to add a couple of points that I find regrettable or that we should be careful about. First, while literature by the younger generation refers to Western theories and literature, it pays less attention to our traditional philosophical, linguistic, and historical resources—even in comparison to other popular culture. Second, I find a sort of trend where cutting-edge theories or discourses overwhelm or control narratives, just as “political correctness” sometimes does. I would like to see them more aware of these pitfalls and Changbi make a concerted effort to avoid them.


Kim:  I’d also like to remember that the constant support and loving advice of our readers have made today’s Changbi possible. Please share your thoughts about what kinds of relationships Changbi should have with its readers going forward.


Lee:  To Changbi, readers are not just consumers, but those who guard it even in the midst of man