창작과 비평

[Editorial] A Case for Transformational Centrism to Surpass the 1987 System


The Quarterly Changbi 172, Summer 2016



The result of the general election in Korea in April 2016 surprised many of us, because the opposition parties won a majority of the votes—even though they were divided and in disarray. This result, which some even called a “voter revolution,” has enormous political significance because it dealt a critical blow to the Park Geun-hye Administration’s attempted “gradual coup d’état.”

Under the Park Geun-hye regime, the rollback strategy adopted by conservative and reactionary forces ended up destroying the very foundation of our democratic governance. These forces have been persistently carrying out a political project whose sole goal is the establishment of their own hegemony. Their actions have included the enforcement of state-created history textbooks, the establishment of the governing system controlled by cronies of the president, the disabling of the National Assembly, and the shutting down of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The general election in the spring was an opportunity for the Park administration to fortify this political project, which we had been referring to since before the election as a “gradual coup d’état.” But the defeat of the ruling party in the general election put a brake on the Park Administration’s attempts to further this consolidation of power. Although it is not clear that the opposition parties now lead in our political arena, there is no doubt that the ruling party and administration can no longer easily make unilateral decisions.

This dramatic development reminds us that the power of the democratic system has advanced significantly under the 1987 system. The fact that we obtained this result in the general election, even while the opposition parties were in disarray, demonstrates even more clearly the strength of the 1987 democratic system. This election result, in turn, demands that the democratic reform forces take this 1987 system to a radically new level, one that guarantees a secure and sustainable life for all members of our society. In other words, it is crucial for us to understand that the Korean people did not give the election victory to the opposition parties so that they would simply increase their share of the political pie. Given that it is clear the 1987 system has exhausted most of its vitality, simply improving it will not bring about the kind of fundamental reform that the people resoundingly demanded in the last election.

In order to successfully carry out this task of radically transforming the 1987 system, we need, above all, to find out why it has been failing. Fortunately, the issue of transforming the 1987 system is now being raised in the political arena. What’s more, since we are now approaching the 30th anniversary of the June 1987 Struggle for Democracy, this issue will likely be more actively discussed in the near future. When we look at how the current discussion of this issue is going, however, we are concerned that it might take the same form of debate as on the Constitution in 1987, in particular, concerning the issue of the power structure. Clearly, going beyond the 1987 system will be extremely difficult through this kind of outdated framework.

The 1987 system is declining now because our democratic reform movement has not made the necessary effort to comprehensively reform the current system on the entire Korean peninsula—that is, the division system. As a result, the democratic forces in Korea are quite vulnerable to counterattack by conservative and reactionary forces, which take advantage of the ideological conflict in our divided state. In addition, the forces of democratic reform have neglected to address the task of fundamental and systemic transformation, instead burying themselves in the pursuit of individual reform agendas. As the democratic reform forces have focused on introducing Western-style progressive models, while ignoring our special circumstance, in which the division system is playing a major role, they have ended up gradually dissipating and weakening the reformist energies in the society. As a result, conservative forces have successfully attacked democratic governance, as the 1987 system has gradually yet clearly revealed signs of decline.

Conservative and reactionary forces are still pushing their efforts to rollback the democratic reform gains of the 1987 system. To them, majority power in the National Assembly is only one of many footholds. Therefore, despite their bruising loss in the general election, they can still mobilize other powerful institutions within the government, such as the National Intelligence Agency, Prosecutor’s Office, the Police, and Office of National Tax Administration, as well as establishment allies in the media, religious institutions, and academia. Therefore, they might temporarily adopt more flexible tactics; but they will certainly persist in their attempt to maintain and fortify their vested interests within the current division system. In fact, even after the losses in the general election, President Park declared that the result was the people’s judgment on the National Assembly rather than on the administration, and that she would continue to pursue the state-created history textbooks, demonstrating that she was not interested in showing even tactical flexibility. At the same time, she has already begun to shift the political scene unfavorable to her by reinforcing an inter-Korean crisis.

A bigger issue, however, is whether opposition parties that won majority votes in the general election have the vision and ability to halt the current government’s attempts at rollback, to overcome the limits of the 1987 system, and to lead a fundamental and systemic transformation. It is at least encouraging that phrases such as “power change” and “the opposition parties’ ability to govern” have emerged as political talking points after the election. They have become keywords, though, because major factions within the opposition parties have given the impression during the past few years they were more interested in sharing vested interests within the establishment than in taking power on behalf of the majority of people. However, a change in administration itself cannot be our ultimate goal, as it is only the means for the radical systemic change necessary in our society. It is only when we successfully reach a social consensus about the kind of society we want to create, after transforming the 1987 system, and how we will achieve it, that the power change can be elevated to a fundamental transformation of our society.

Regarding this issue, it is noteworthy that arguments concerning various paths of reform—centrism, transformational centrism, and rational reformism—were raised around the time of general election. It appears that a sort of consensus has occurred, and that it focuses on the necessity for a realistic reform program that addresses the needs of most members of our society. However, a simple, realistic centrism can easily deteriorate into a compromise within the establishment. Rather than promoting fundamental reform, such an approach can easily settle for a change of hands between different factions within the elite. This is a reasonable concern given that the opposition parties did not criticize the current administration’s inability and irresponsibility in its dealings with North Korea, exhibited in its failure to prevent North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Instead, the opposition parties appeared to side with the ruling party when they argued for the revision of the Sunshine Policy and also spread negative images of the democracy movement. Yet has any meaningful reform happened without the support of such social movements in our society? Factional strife within the movement and the rash conduct of some activists have sometimes disappointed the Korean people, and should be criticized because they weaken the movement. But it is absurd to condemn the movement itself because of such occurrences. This leap is part of the political intention of taking advantage of centrism for the purpose of compromise within the establishment.

This situation is why Changbi has continued to argue for a “transformational” centrism. We propose this approach based on the understanding that the specific circumstances of our society offer a great opportunity to combine centrism with transformation. The specific circumstances here originate from the existence of the overarching division system, under which we have been living for more than half a century. In order to overcome this system, we need to adopt centrism, as the task of overcoming it requires cooperation among far more varied and wide-ranging forces than are needed to conduct reforms solely within South Korea. The overcoming of the division system also cannot help being transformational because its goal should be the establishment of a better society throughout the entire Korean peninsula. As tensions currently mount on the peninsula, this proposal may sound like an empty slogan. However, the increasing tension itself is a sign of insecurity within the division system—a sign that the system can no longer be steadily maintained. If we in the progressive camp ignore this reality, or go a step further and pander to the pressures of the conservatives, we will not be able even to maintain the already unraveling 1987 system, let alone create the momentum to go beyond it. We cannot over-emphasize how important it is to make the radical shift in thinking, by connecting the task of overcoming the peninsula-wide division system with democratic reform in South Korea.

In order to tackle this task, the opposition parties, above all, should fundamentally change their approach. The Democratic Party is currently mired in factional strife. Some argue that outside political forces imposed, for their own gains, such divisive titles as “pro-Roh” and “pro-Moon” to groups within the Democratic Party. However, there is no denying that the party elite have given the impression that they were more interested in solidifying a particular individual as the party’s presidential candidate than in bringing forth a power shift or fundamental change in society. This was why the Democratic Party ranked only third in party support among voters, despite winning the most assembly seats. The Democratic Party should now try to lead the effort to create a space in which party leaders explore radically new possibilities through fair competition among varied ideas. Only then can they continue to play the leadership role among the opposition parties.

Although the People’s Party won the third-most seats in the general election, due to voter antipathy toward the two major parties, it is fair to say that it is not ready to undertake the task of bringing about radical change in our society. Korean voters chose the current three-party structure in order to encourage the sluggish opposition forces to be reborn as a force to undertake this difficult task. If the People’s Party does not respond to this demand of the Korean people and simply enjoy its position as the third party in the National Assembly, it will not avoid the fate of other previous third and fourth parties that crumbled under pressure.

In addition, the Justice Party, which won 7% of party support in the general election, can play an important role in fostering significant new political possibilities. However, the actions of the Justice Party during the general election were disappointing. When both the Democratic Party and People’s Party held onto centrism during the election, the Justice Party could have pointed out its limits and led them in a more transformational direction. Instead, they became enmeshed in political engineering, such as party coalitions, rather than leading the centrist parties toward a more fundamental alterative. As a result, they failed to highlight their own political significance. We hope the Justice Party will play a more active role in leading radical change in our society and not become mired in petty political strife.

Our civil society can also play a significant role in bringing about more fundamental change. It has the potential to create a vision for radical change in our society and to lead our political arena toward fundamental change over and beyond their own petty interests. In order to materialize this potential, though, it has to break out of its customary mold, in which it continues to work autonomously and habitually, or else is imprisoned within factional biases, as it did during the past general election. Rather, it should trust Korean voters’ wisdom and lead the way to creating a vision for a fundamental change.

The Korean people are increasingly aware of the reasons why the 1987 system began to decline. Now both the political arena and civil society should actively pursue the goal of bringing about fundamental change, based on the spirit of reformative centrism. In order not to lose this opportunity, which Korean voters have created by making their own difficult choices, all of us must be resolute in the strenuous effort necessary to bring about fundamental change in our society.


The current issue runs a special feature: “Korean Literature Fighting Against ‘the Closed Future’”. True, the reality of today seems so bleak and desperate that we don't have great expectations for a bright future, and considering this grave reality, Korean literature doesn't provide any ground for easy hope; but we can still detect in it the artistic struggle not to give up the journey toward the future by coping with life as it is. The articles in the feature discuss diverse ways in which today's Korean literature could perform the tough task of searching for new possibilities to overcome the harsh realities faced by the people.

Kang Kyung-seok, continuing Hwang Kyoo-kwan's discussion started in the last issue, delves into literary theory for the people. He insists that 'the people', in the present era, is an indicating concept for us, because we are desperately searching for 'other world(s)' and solidarity. And he goes on to contemplate the ways Korean literature explores the future by reviewing today's literary practices, focusing on such concepts as 'the people' and 'the reality'. Han Young-in discusses the significance of the short stories by Jo Hae-jin and Yoon Ko-eun as unforgettable literary achievements which help us endure the anxiety of life. Through portraying languid characters beset by the logic of capitalism, these stories show a nadir of life in our era, and thereby make it possible for us to confront life without any false expectations toward it.

Refuting the lethargic tendency found in recent poems, Yang Kyung-urn elaborates on her argument that the new poems by Hwang In-chan, Lim Sol-a, Jung Han-na, and Jeon Moon-young, among others, offer successful examples of coping with the present reality, demonstrating their political competence, and suggesting the prospects for the future. More stressed in her argument is the political perspective in re-reading contemporary poems by the aforementioned poets. So Young-hyun inquires into the self-contradictory, or concealed logic behind the ubiquitous terms such as 'Hell-Korea' and 'Out-of-Korea'. Furthermore, she offers a proper analysis on the contradictions those concepts entail. What draws our special attention is her acute analysis on the novels by Jang Kang-myung and Park Min-jung, two promising writers, with their penetrating insights into the lives of the young generation.

In Literary Criticism, Shin Sat-byul explores the novels by Han Kang, including The Vegetarian, the 2016 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, focusing on "the botanic subjectivity" and "the sense of Out-Of-Body". According to her delicate, yet pointed analysis, Han Kang's works, both lyrical and lacerating, prove to be no other than the most fiercely struggling battlefield "to fight against the closed future". Do Jin-soon, the Korean historian, tries to interpret "Wilderness" in his article, the best-known anti-Japanese poem as well as the representative work of Yi Yook-sa's last poems. This unique article, the attempt from the historian's original point of view, enriches our understanding of the poem itself and underscores the significance of the poet-fighter in the context of today's politics.

We have also prepared a great variety of poems and short stories in the current issue. In succession of the 24 poems by elder poets presented in the last issue, 25 representative poets, from Kim Jung-hwan to Jo Ki-jo, have contributed their new poems to this summer issue. In the corner of short stories have been printed three stories and a novella with distinctive styles and original content by Jo Kap-sang, Jeong Mi-kyung, Park Sarang, and Kwon Yeo-sun. In particular, the short story by Jo Kap-sang gives us much food for thought regarding the current disturbance around the state-created history textbooks, and Kwon Yeo-sun's novella deals with the question of truth surrounding a murder case with a peculiar and intense writing style.

Literary Focus, hosted by Kim So-yeun, the poet, and Baik Ji Yeon, the literary critic, invited Kim Young-chan, the literary critic, as the special guest, and the three have a fruitful discussion on reportage literature commemorating the victims of the Sewol Ferry Disaster, as well as a few collections of poetry and short stories. The enthusiasm with which the participants search for a momentum for the revitalization of Korean literature will be felt on every page of the essay. In Focus on Authors, Park So-ran, the poet, has a compelling dialogue with Song Kyung-dong, 'the Poet on the Street', on his collection of poetry, I Am Not a Korean (2016), and his unique view of life and literature.

The problems of the Republic of Korean Armed Forces (ROKA) are addressed as the second agenda of Dialogue, which features "The Inside of 'The Conservative Forces' in Korea". What are the armed forces of South Korea like, where the conscription system has been adopted for so long? And what kind of mechanism makes it possible for the authorities to infringe on soldiers' right to vote in the presidential election at the military camps? After raising those questions, the participants discuss the main topics, such complicated issues found in the ROKA as those of human rights in the military, corruption scandals implicated in the national defense, the democratic control over the armed forces, and so on. These problems, plus possible reform plans, are discussed by Kim Jong-dae, the newly-elected member of the 20th National Assembly, Yeo Seok-joo, the former chief watch officer of the Blue House, and Lee Tae-ho, the chairperson of the policy advisory committee of PSPD (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy).

The Articles corner includes two essays. Han Hong-gu gives penetrating comments on the three memoirs of Kim Jong-pil, Lee Jong-chan, and Imm Chai-kyung, who have left their traces behind on the modern history of Korea, even if from different political stances, respectively. Kang Jung-sook, inquiring into the complicated problem of Korean 'Comfort Women' in the Japanese Army, examines the past and present contributions Korean historical research has made on the subject, and furthermore, their duty to perform in the future.

Two essays are included in Fields of Life. Yang Hye-woo addresses the issues concerning immigrants, as the second agenda of the corner, Diagnosing Korean Society From the Viewpoint of Minorities. It is pointed out that newly-legislated laws regarding immigrants, paradoxically, functions as the mechanism for division and exclusion, and the concept of civil rights confined within the nation-state should be abolished. Jung Hyun-gon submits his appraisal on the 2016 General Election from the perspective of civil politics and the tasks to be carried out in the future. The deplorable reality, where the consequences of the election are appropriated only by the political parties, urges us to search for an alternative to the phenomenon.

In the corner of Essay, revived after a while, Miryu, the human rights activist, gives us an equanimous description of the intricate process to cope with the Sewol Ferry Disaster, and emphasizes the importance of communication and solidarity between the groups concerned and the victims' families. This is a vivid report of the struggle which should be neither forgotten nor interrupted. From now on, we are going to enrich our magazine with essays dealing with the current issues of our life and social movement. As always, each article in Book Reviews, in itself, presents wonderful reading materials, and at the same time the reliable guide for avid readers. Voice of Readers, under the head of "What Readers Expect from Changbi", includes two interviews, one an activist's, the other a scholar's. We appreciate their precious remarks of admonition as well as encouragement, hoping they will be of great help in the editing of the journal.

On top of Han Kang's winning of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, we proudly announce another piece of good news; Keum Tae-hyun, with his Mango Square, has been chosen to be the winner of The Quarterly Changbi Award for a Novel in Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Journal. Congratulations on his rather late debut, and we wish him the best as he creates important writings in the future.

The 50th anniversary commemorative issue has received enthusiastic responses from both readers and the press. We are more than ever grateful for the fervent support and encouragement and will not forget to keep the promises we made in the editorial of the 171 issue. Our new editorial board will always keep an open mind in order to attend to what our readers expect for us.

Lee Nam Ju