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[Editorial] The Candlelight Revolution’s Spirit of Peace and Coexistence

The Quarterly Changbi 185, Autumn 2019


My Name Is Kim Bok-dong (directed by Song Won Geun), a documentary film that premiered this past summer in Korea, depicts the life of Kim Bok-dong (1926-2019), who was a “comfort woman”—a Japanese wartime sex slave. In a measured fashion, it depicts the journey of a woman whose life expanded from being a victim-witness of that abusive system to an activist for women’s and human rights and for peace. Kim was 14 years old when she was deceived into believing she would be employed in a military uniform factory and forced to become a sex slave. Eight years later, in 1948, she finally returned home, after being kept in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

A year after the public testimony of Kim Hak-sun in 1991, about her victimhood as a comfort woman, Kim Bok-dong also came forward, at the age of 62, and engaged in testimonial activities. She not only delivered a message of anti-war and peace at the Asian Solidarity Conference and the United Nations Human Rights Council, but also spearheaded activities to help children in regions of armed conflict and women victimized during wars, by co-founding the Butterfly Fund, to which she donated her life savings. Her life of dedication to the promotion of human rights and peace, both domestically and abroad, went on for 27 years.

Kim Bok-dong passed away early this year, without ever receiving an official apology from the Japanese government, something she had sincerely hoped for. In the documentary, her chanting of the slogan “Apologize before all of us die!” stands out. At the same time, the film’s audiences have been deeply outraged by a scene in which Park Geun-hye’s Korean government abruptly announces the Japan-South Korea “Comfort Women” Agreement with Abe Shinzo’s government in December 2015, ignoring the surviving victims’ wishes for an official apology. Despite fierce criticism of this hasty agreement on the payment of compensation and the establishment of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation without the participation of the parties directly involved, the Japanese government stated that the agreement was “final and irreversible” and the Park government sided with them. The last half of the documentary breathlessly trails Kim Bok-dong, who condemned the agreement and demanded the official apology by the Japanese government, doing so along with citizens who worked in solidarity with her. Although the documentary cannot show the full extent of the later development of this movement, the historical issues such as the demands for an official apology to the victims of the comfort women system, as well as compensation for wartime forced laborers, fueled the Candlelight Revolution that began to slowly burn soon afterward.

While the Abe Shinzo government began taking steps to turn back the historical clock, by reviving regressive militarist ambitions, this documentary film reminds us of our colonial history, as an important reality we have yet to fully confront. In July of this year, after declaring a restriction on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea, in retaliation for the South Korean Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the victims of forced labor, the Abe government removed South Korea from its “white list” of countries that receive preferential treatment on requirements for the importation of sensitive Japanese-made goods. The essence of this measure, which turns the matter of forced labor compensation into an economic issue, lies in the Japanese government’s intention to deny and hide responsibility for their nation’s past aggressions. By these actions, they have revealed the bare face of an imperialist ambition, which attempts to argue that colonial rule by Japan was a legal action that brought about modernization in Korea, and asserts that the forced sexual slavery and labor were voluntary actions by Koreans.

There is no doubt about the intentions of the Abe government with this incipient economic war, which not only threatens peace in East Asia, including the Korean peninsula, but also cannot be beneficial to Japan. The antagonism between the Korean and Japanese people is clearly the political framework that the extreme rightist Abe regime and forces of the status quo want. In addition, behind the newly revived “Seikanron,” or advocacy of a punitive expedition to Korea, which has originated from the ultra-rightist Japanese regime’s concern for the rise of Korean economic and national power, lies their worry about shrinking Japanese influence in Korea due to the recent change in the inter-Korean relationship, as well as the changing East Asian order due to China’s emergence. It is clear that rightwing status quo powers, both domestic and overseas, which are trying to check and nullify Korea’s movement toward a more peaceful system, backed by the Candlelight Revolution’s dynamic energy, are associated with these Japanese political dynamics. In this sense, the economic war that the Abe government started is an attempt to nullify the worldwide influence of the Candlelight Revolution-backed peace system on the Korean peninsula.

At this point, it is necessary to reflect on the spirit and message of democratic and peaceful revolution that Korean citizens have practiced and deepened for a long time, ever since the March 1st Movement in 1919. The spirit of the Candlelight Revolution, which has been defending democracy and peace, while ushering in a new era, is an important resource for enabling inter-Korean reconciliation, a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, and a more peaceful world. In fact, Korean citizens’ voluntary actions in response to the Japan-Korea conflict and trade retaliation make us realize how strong the power of veteran Candlelight Revolution citizens is. They not only demonstrate creative citizen activism, through various small-scale consumer protest movements and public education activities about recent history, but also reject politicians’ attempts to piggyback on their movement, as well as rejecting nationalist antagonism against Japan rather than against the Abe government. These kinds of actions open up the possibility of solidarity with many conscientious Japanese citizens in favor of peace and international solidarity. At the same time, for the spirit of the Candlelight Revolution to become a real motivating power in overcoming the present situation, the social and political reforms necessary to significantly reduce inequality and the accumulated evils in our society should not be delayed. It is now time for our government to present systematic policy proposals and to make corresponding efforts that concretely respond to the reality of inequality in all areas of our society.

The issue of historical awareness and education in our recent past, including the “comfort women” incident, reminds us why peaceful reunification to overcome the division system in the Korean peninsula is so important. Kim Bok-dong’s life, captured in the documentary, overlaps with the lives of most Koreans who have struggled through modern Korean history, including the cruel colonial period, as well as the lives of innumerable citizens in other parts of the world who have endured similar fates. Kim’s testimony and peace activism demonstrate the possibility of global women’s solidarity in condemning wartime atrocities and in healing trauma. The time when citizens took to the streets and stood in the squares, confronting the “surprise attack” of the Japan-South Korea “Comfort Women” Agreement, was woven together with the beginning of the Candlelight Revolution protesting accumulated social evils and illegal practices. The power of that revolution, confronting domestic and overseas status quo powers, pushed forward inter-Korean coexistence and peace and resisted and attacked the regional and global Cold War powers. What Kim Bok-dong appealed for—on the streets with the Peace Statue, together with many citizens and members of the Justice for the Comfort Women and the Peace Butterfly Network—was this message of a collective intellect, based on the tradition of peaceful resistance movements. The spirit of the Candlelight Revolution, which yearns for peace and coexistence, is most urgently necessary now.


In this issue we feature essays under the theme “Which Equalities Persist Now?” in order to comprehensively examine the reality of polarization and inequality that has emerged as the major question now facing our society. Based on this discursive examination of the reality of inequality, the featured articles carefully examine and interpret the reality of inequality appearing in various areas, including intensifying gender inequality, economic inequality and income disparity, and regional inequality, and explore ways to overcome these realities.

Beginning with a discussion of equality as a journey to the completion of humanity and civilization, Hwang Jung-a meticulously analyzes various social discourses and literary works that interpret our reality of inequality. Critically referring to Nancy Fraser’s discussion, she engagingly points out how the reality of inequality represented in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite eventually leads to a self-fulfilling realism. The “realism of equality” that the conclusion of this article presents seems like an important proposal, exploring the possibility of the commons.

While examining how gender differences in the sensibility of inequality and a societal shift toward hatred politics have been intensifying since the Asian financial crisis, Kwon Kim Hyun-young analyzes the emergence of post-feminism and a new generation of women, who are characteristically somewhat reactive and affective, and who perceive feminism with a sense of being “a time after.” Kwon Kim argues that we need to critically confront gender discrimination, gender conflict, and the effect of hatred that still clearly exist, despite the reality in which feminism is more popularized.

Ku Inhoe concretely analyzes the realities of economic polarization and income inequality that have recently emerged as urgent issues, in light of the great change in labor markets and family structure that have been underway. While pointing out that the worsening economic inequality is caused by a worsening distribution gap in the labor markets, an aging of the labor force, changes in family structure, and the government’s problematic tax and social policies, Ku proposes that the policy paradigm change toward pursuing both economic development and improvements in distribution.

Illuminating the current situation and causes of regional inequality in our times, when the regional asset gap in Korea intensifies, Jeong Jun Ho discusses its political and economic significances and the policy directions to overcome them. He argues that in order to effectively confront this “space fetishism,” which turns a socio-economic issue into a regional one, we need policy reforms that can give more decision-making power to local citizens and can maximize unused potential in the region.

“Dialogue” in this issue is a special feature discussing the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. He Zhaotian, a research associate at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Literature, and Lee Nam Ju, a Changbi editorial board member, met in Beijing for a conversation. While tracing the unique power dynamic established among the party, state, and people through the May 4th Movement, Cultural Revolution, and 40-year Economic Reform, and the history of ideas behind the process, they re-illuminate new possibilities of historical practice stemming from this previous revolution. Interestingly, they assess the past and present of Chinese Revolution within the context of the experience and thought of the “Public Line,” the change and direction of “New Left” intellectuals, and the vision of a “new human being.” Above all, it is noteworthy that they discuss the history of revolutionary movements related to revolutionary thought in China from the perspective of the dual tasks of embracing and overcoming modernity.

In the articles section, Lee Heajeong reviews and analyzes various policies and positions within the U.S. concerning North Korean nuclearization, with, as a backdrop, the abrupt change in their approach toward North Korean denuclearization since the presidency of Donald Trump. He discusses how U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula has been shifting from pressure, based on North Korea exceptionalism, to engagement, based on realism, while paying attention to the emergence and spread of arguments in favor of negotiation that had previously been anemic.

Jeong Kyu Sik discusses the political significance of social movements in Hong Kong, focusing on the recent protests against the extradition agreement amendment bill. He carefully examines the social significance of demonstrations and movements there in the midst of the fissure within the one-nation-two-system philosophy, Hong Kong’s identity problems, and the hegemony conflict between the U.S. and China.

Kim Dae-jung reflects on the socio-historical horizon in Dasan and Sirhak Studies, through two newly published books on Dasan: Dasan Studies Dictionary and Learning from Dasan. Kim proposes that we not only continue the achievements of Dasan Studies, but also explore the possibilities of a new study of Dasan after Dasan Studies through in-depth critical reflections within the field.

For literary criticism, we publish three articles illuminating young writers’ works that actively reflect today’s youth reality and changes in family relationships. Han Young-in reviews the strenuous efforts focused on the issues of possession and existence in literary works in the age of the “New Normal,” characterized by low economic growth and increasing inequality. He pays special attention to Kim Se-hee’s short stories, which depict people struggling with the crisis of downward class mobility, and their desire for upward class mobility, as well as Kim Bong-gon’s writings dealing with immersion in pure love that excludes economic calculation.

Observing the recent emergence in mother-daughter narratives among narratives about women, Jeon Ki-hwa closely reads the relationship of tension and conflict between a mother and daughter in changed social contexts, depicted in the works of Cho Nam-joo, Baik Sou Linne, and Kim Yu-dam.

Lim Jeong Gyun, this year’s winner of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the literary criticism category, expresses great appreciation for the achievements and significance of Kim Geum-hee’s novels as an indicator of people’s lives in the age of affective capitalism. We take note of “realism of the mind,” a term he coined to capture the characteristics of Kim Geum-hee’s novels, which represent reality along the structure of “the whole vs. the not-whole.”

For poetry, we publish works with unique voices by 12 poets, including Han Jaebeom, winner of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the poetry category, Kang Ji Yi, and Choi Moon Ja. In the fiction corner, we offer the second installment of Lee Kiho’s exciting novel, eagerly anticipated by our readers. We also introduce new short stories by Park Solmay, Bae Suah, and Song Sokze, as well as Jeong Eun-u, winner of the Changbi Award for Young Writers in the fiction category.

In the “Literary Focus” section, poet Park Yeon-jun and literary critic Kim Na-young participated in a lively dialogue with invited guest and fiction writer Kim Bong-gon. Based on close readings, they share stimulating insights about poetry collections by Jeon Dong-gyun, Choi Mun-ja, and Park Se-mi, as well as novels by Park Sang-young, Cho Nam-joo, and Kim Cho-yeop.

For “Focus on Author,” novelist Jung Yong-jun met Yoon Sung-hee, whose novel A Kind Person was published recently. The article contains an honest conversation in which we learn the origins of the narrative care and humorous aspects of Yoon Sung-hee’s works, which quietly bring marginalized people to the center. Readers will also meet thoughtful reviews of noteworthy books that came out in the last season in the “Book Reviews” corner. We sincerely thank our reviewers, who dedicated their substantial time and efforts to these reviews.

We added the category of literary criticism to this year’s Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. Along with critic Yang Kyung Eon, Poet Shin Cheol-gyu and novelist Kim Se-hee were selected as winners of the 37th Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. We celebrate their achievements and hope for their continuing literary dedication, with our sincerest encouragement and congratulations. At the same time, we are publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature and the judges’ comments. You can look forward to our announcement of the winner in the winter issue of Changbi. Last but not the least, we announce that Professor Kim Sora, a distinguished scholar of gender studies, has joined our editorial board. We look forward to her great contributions to Changbi’s overall editorial direction.


While finishing our work of creating this issue, in the midst of a hot and muggy summer, we appreciated all the contributors who sent us the results of their hard labor. We are living in a time when the collaboration and wisdom of all our community members is urgently needed to wisely solve the problem of the Japan-Korea conflict that appears to be continuing for a while. While promising that Changbi will do its part diligently, we look forward to our readers’ continuing support and rigorous advice.


Baik Ji-yeon