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[Editorial] Who Is the True Cartel in Our Society?

The Quarterly Changbi 201, Autumn 2023



This summer, the heatwave and flooding left unusually deep scars, through unprecedentedly harsh disasters, reaching beyond regular seasonal misfortunes. Precious lives were lost due to floods in the central region, the disastrous submerging of the underpass in Osong, and a negligent accident in the Marine Corps. In fact, though, they were more man-made disasters than natural ones. If we remember that it had only been some eight months since the Itaewon Disaster, the problem feels even more serious. As the 2023 World Scout Jamboree in Saemangeum is limping along, while the current government’s administrative incompetence and insensitivity to safety have been repeating themselves, we now seem to be confronting total failure and confusion of governance.

The prevention and handling of disasters properly is a government’s practical duty—a responsibility for protecting people’s lives and safety, which relates directly to the work of governing. As various disasters, including those resulting from climate crisis, have become more routine, we now live in a reality where we can encounter accidents anytime and anywhere. As a result, the process of restoring and rebuilding from disasters reveals the essence of a society’s political capabilities. Nevertheless, the current government is resolutely taking the position that it is not responsible for any disasters that happen under its governance. Instead, it threatens to discover “interest-based cartels,” whose identities are unclear, and to have them take responsibility. To this end, it announced an absurdist “solution:” tracking down “corrupt” cartels, abolishing government subsidies to them, and using the money saved for damage restoration.

The term “cartel,” which appears frequently in remarks by the president and other governmental officials recently, is used to avoid their public responsibility, as an antagonistic political tactic. Ironically, those who utter the word are the actual corrupt entity that should be eradicated. On reflection, in fact, there is no more transparent keyword that sums up the genesis and identity of the current government than the term “cartel,” as meaning “an organization unjustly formed to monopolize profits and maintain vested interests.” And isn’t it the broad-based elite cartel that permeates political, judicial, journalistic, military, and academic circles that has prevailed in our society, based on the division system? And wasn’t the current government born on the basis of this elite cartel and its alignment? Regarding this, we are reminded that Paik Nak-chung recently pointed out, while considering the current ruling party as having changed the most radically after the Candlelight Revolution, that they have become a group desperately pursuing their own interests after being defeated in the Candlelight Revolution (Paik Nak-chung, “What We Should Do in 2023: Let’s Not Live As We Have So Far,” Quarterly Changbi Spring 2023, 18).

Since claiming, early this year, that they would reform labor, education, and the pension plan, the current government has been lumping together matters of widely differing natures and calling them “interest-based cartels.” The work of eradicating “cartels,” for which the government mobilizes entire investigative agencies and prosecutorial organizations, has become a matter of the targeting, oppressing, and coercing communities they consider hindrances to the pursuit of their interests, including the previous government. While they cry “anti-cartel,” they are themselves the embodiment of a cartel. One of the most important problems in this politics of “cartels,” which is based on an antagonistic front formation and targeted investigations, is that it threatens the basis of our society’s democracy and conceals essential public agendas in it, by oppressing and controlling the media.

At this moment, amidst the cartel controversy, important issues that will crucially determine the fate of our country are not reported on by the media and it appears they will continue to be buried. It is very hard to find full reports and critical analyses about the impending Japanese nuclear wastewater dumping and the Korea-US-Japan military alliance, for instance, both major agendas of the Korea-US-Japan summit on August 18. Control of the public broadcasting stations, for which the entire governmental organization is mobilized and which is being pushed, while ignoring legal procedures, and the wrongful charges and audits made against translation and publication organizations are maliciously enforced under the guise of false accusations of cartels. Also serious is the way labor-related agendas are buried by the claim of eradicating the construction worker “cartel.”

Above all, this rude and violent political affect, pushed through by vested interests, creates continuous social hatred, anxiety, and antagonism. Incidents of horrific violence, which we have encountered lately in subways, on streets, and in classrooms, are not sudden accidents but rather parts of the world that this kind of hatred and anxiety have fed and nourished. This world emphasizes a cruel survival system, incites “everyman for oneself,” as if it were the only solution, and whispers that one should continue to live as in the past, since, after all, the world is a dangerous place. But there is no safe future guaranteed by a way of thinking in which one creates enemies and tries to survive on one’s own. It just temporarily blocks our eyes and ears. We urgently need a space for living in which we create perspectives for new politics, beyond the walls of this deep-rooted mistrust that feeds on antagonism and hatred.

The current political situation, in which the government slashes national budgets that should be publicly and justly used for the underprivileged, by falsely accusing them of being interest-based cartels, and threatens the basis of their survival, paradoxically lets us know that our society has reached a pressing need for urgent change. The more the politics of an elite cartel reveals its barbaric nature, the more the weakness of its foundation is exposed. It is also now that we should together think hard about the objects of reform that we should truly confront, based on our individual lives of practice. How can we stop this reckless politics of interest-grabbing? The time for wise discussions and strength-gathering is imminent.


After celebrating the 200th issue in the summer, Quarterly Changbi is taking new steps with practical tasks that embody its orientation toward a grand transformation. From this issue onward, we want to feature detailed discussions under themes with broad perspectives and in concise articles. For this issue, we offer four articles under the theme “The Narrative Called Korea.” These articles try to find creative paths for narrative possibilities of Korea in key areas, including social politics, literary history, Korean Studies, and theories about East Asia, based on discursive diagnoses and criticisms about how to think of Korea in the era of civilizational transformation. While emphasizing that the development and achievements that Korea has been making should be connected to the tasks of this new era of transformation, Lee Nam Ju tries to find a new path for discursive thinking about Korea. Incisively analyzing how the discourse of Korea as a global hub state and the diplomacy and security policy of the current administration are fundamentally connected to the plan to re-consolidate the division system, Lee reminds us of the danger of the either/or Cold War mentality, which the current government insists on, pointing out that it will reduce the opportunity for progress in Korea. Persuasively arguing that the overcoming of the division system is critical in the task of civilizational transformation in Korea, this article proposes that we forge new possibilities for Korea, based on this understanding.

Discussing arguments about “literariness” prevalent in recent Korean literature studies and literary criticism, Kang Kyung-seok analyzes problems with these arguments, based on the perspectives of post-nationalism and the theory of the end of modern literature. Of particular importance, he points out that recent mainstream studies of Korean literary history connected to skepticism about literariness arise from an arbitrary theory of periodic liquidation and the privileging of one’s own period, and instead he proposes the possibility of a Korean literary history to be newly written in the era of civilizational transformation, by creatively connecting tradition and the present.

Jung Heon-mok reflects critically on the problem with an essentialist attitude toward what is Korean that existing Korean Studies commonly imply. While considering objectively the process of building contemporary Korea beyond cultural achievements in the current atmosphere, where we are required to newly understand what is Korean in a global context, Jung emphasizes new tasks that Korean studies should take on in order to be able to answer questions posed from outside.

Baik Ji-woon considers the present state of theories about East Asia that can be transmitted from the Korean peninsula in the midst of the crisis originating from the hegemonic competition between the US and China. By way of Rhee Yueng-Hui’s theory of Far East Asia, Baik reflects on the logic of a transitional period, when Rhee was trying to overcome the Cold War dichotomy in his day, and feels out the possibility that an agenda based on the theory of East Asian civilization can newly intervene in our reality.

“Dialogue” looks into the problem of the Fukushima Wastewater Release, currently a highly controversial social issue. Moderated by Nam Sang-wook, three participants—Song Kiho, Oh Eunjeong, and Lee Heon-seok—discuss from various angles the hidden side of this nuclear powerplant accident, the origin of the current wastewater release plan, the essential nature of nuclear industries, and practical issues of nuclear wastewater release. A noteworthy discussion, it deals with critically important issues of our time, while considering ways to overcome our society’s broken system of coping with disasters and its crisis of democracy, as well as urging international solidarity in this arena.

In “Article,” Suh Jae-jung discusses the current crisis in which the arms race on the Korean peninsula has entered a new phase. Reminding us of the urgency of our reality, in which the “preemptive strike” doctrine is gaining power and the two blocs—South Korea-US-Japan and North Korea-China-Russia—confront each other, Suh asks earnestly that South Korea, in particular, initiate détente measures, unilaterally declaring and practicing the freezing of armaments and military exercises.

For “On the Scene,” Choi Sihyun met Housework and Care Union President Choi Young Mi to discuss various topics, including changes since the introduction of the Household Workers Act a year ago, recent debates about the introduction of foreign domestic workers, and the trend of changing household and care work into platform labor. Urging change in the social understanding of household and care work, it is a significant contribution, helping us to think about care as both value and labor.

For “Focus on Author,” Changbi’s editorial board member Paik Young-Gyung met Hyun Ki Young, who recently published This Is Jeju Island, a three-volume novel covering the roots of the modern history of Jeju and the Korean peninsula. It is a profound and serious conversation in which we realize the present significance of this novel, which deals comprehensively with the modern and contemporary history of Jeju, making us think about a narrative imagination that can create alternative lives from the disappeared and mourning Jeju communities.

In “Literary Criticism,” while carefully examining the achievements of My Father’s Liberation Diary by Jeong Ji A, Lim Hong-Bae considers the possibilities of a new narrative interpretation of history embodied in it, as well as the potential of local narratives, which it embodies. In particular, illuminating the literary significance of a socialist perspective, depicted through the father, Lim draws our attention to the deeply moving quality of the representation of a character‘s nature that refuses to give in to destructive violence. Winner of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the Criticism category, Kwon YoungBin identifies the prevalent affect about death in our society, focusing on Choi Jin Young’s novel, and finds the unique way of condolence depicted in the novel as a way of resistance in our reality where death has lost its meaning.

We try a new form of reviewing in the current “Literary Focus.” Kim Young-hee, Jung Ju-a, and Song Jong-won chose significant works in poetry, fiction, and criticism, respectively, and conducted subtle readings and keen analyses of them. We hope our readers have a continuing interest in this new project, which attempts to find new ways of doing critical writing.

Heo Eun’s essay reflects with care on the late historian Mr. Kang Man-gil, who dedicated his entire life to the democratization of our divided country and its peaceful reunification. Offering insights into the present significance of Mr. Kang’s historiography, based on his belief in anti-colonial nationalism, a socialist valuing community, and anti-war pacificist, it touches our hearts.

In the “Where I Live” series, Lee Won-young, who studies animals in polar regions, contributes an essay. The life of this author, who has spent every winter at the science station in Antarctica for the past 10 years, and the story of ecology we meet through him are highly engaging and pertinent.

“Book Reviews” offer substantial and elegant discussions in various fields through the consideration of valuable books. We also thank our readers who sent warm encouragement and criticisms through their letters.

Creative writings are also abundant in this issue. Fourteen poets are featured in the “Poetry” section, providing diverse offerings. We are glad to introduce poems by not only Lee Hayun, winner of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the Poetry category, but also Kim Si-jong, whose poems are concerned with disasters after the Great East Japan Earthquake, more commonly known as the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. This issue’s “Fiction” corner features new writers and their works, including short stories by Kim Kitae, Kim Ji-yeon, Jeon Jee Young, and Joo Youngha. In addition, the second installment of Kim Keum Hee’s novel enriches it through a deeply developed story.

At the same time, we congratulate poet Lee Dong Woo and novelist Lee Ju-Hye on their 41st Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. We are also publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature and urge our readers’ interest in the announcement of the winners in the winter issue.


It feels special to publish this issue, containing many people’s hard work and passion, at the end of this summer. Although our current reality, with so many problems to solve everywhere, feels extremely difficult, I am encouraged to move forward with renewed energy, gathered through a sense of hope and the efforts we have experienced working on this issue. In this time, when communal collaboration and wisdom feel essential, we promise that Changbi will try our sincerest and best, and we hope for continuing support and good advice from our readers.



Baik Ji-yeon