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[Editorial] Changbi Renewing Itself Through Bolstering Its Activism / Baik Young Seo

Issue 131, Spring 2006


The Quarterly Changbi celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Many readers must already be aware of this fact because of the media coverage that began early this year amid high interest and expectations. Still, it feels particularly moving to celebrate this occasion together with our readers here.

Since its inauguration in 1966, Changbi has taken upon itself to be a foothold where all of us can strengthen our creative and resistance stances. Due to our efforts in this role, Changbi was oppressed by the dictatorial military governments during the 1970s and 80s, and even had to shut down its publication for eight years. However, because we had some influence in our society, as strong as to be called by many a “textbook of national literature” or a “text for consciousness-raising,” our suffering was also another name for our pride. We still occasionally meet readers who remember experiencing a “revolution in worldview” through Changbi during those years, and this makes us feel even solemn.

Since the 1990s, when the ideological topography underwent a transformation and various specialist journals appeared in our society, Changbi continued to try providing our readers with intellectual nutrition, as a space where readers could see our society comprehensively, through our double role as a literary magazine and a magazine of sound discussion. In particular, we feel proud that we have continued to develop new discourses in order to explore ways for us as Koreans and East Asians to respond independently to the trend of globalization driven by capitalist modernity. As achievements in of these efforts, our readers might think of several of our discussions: on the division system, the reconsideration of the theory of minjok national literature (and literature of the Korean community in connection with it), discussions on realism, the theory of (North)east Asia, and the interwoven projects of embracing and overcoming modernity.

These achievements were the result of our particular approach, which emphasizes in-depth analysis and theoretical scrutiny, a stance that could be somewhat challenging for recently emerged media. And these discourses that Changbi has focused on have been playing a considerable role in our society.

At the same time, this stance has also led Changbi to be criticized as too difficult. We believe that articles recently published in Changbi have been challenging; to a great degree because the contradictory social structure of our times has become complicated, and thus requires complicated thoughts. However, it is also possible that principal contributors to Changbi, including its editorial board, have lost some of their activist edge, now that we have become part of the mainstream. Paying attention to this possibility, we have decided to take this 40th anniversary as an opportunity to innovate ourselves, to re-examine how well we have been responding to the tasks of our time.

The basic direction of our renewal is to become a magazine that pursues innovation while respecting the old—as we intended at our 30th anniversary. Above all, we emphasize the renewal of our activism. By that, we mean the activist nature—that is, a power—that we can acquire by maintaining a balance between the overcoming of habitual, everyday routines and the return to scenes of everyday life in order to make deeper roots. The editorial board members, who have, in a way, already become a part of the mainstream, would like to take the lead, so that more people can join the work of dedicating themselves to the demands of our time, while at the same time breaking free from our habitual routines.

Just in time, we hear people argue for “activist intellectuals” as a way out from the impasse that the progressive intellectual society is experiencing lately. Clearly, this is symptomatic of our time. As it becomes clear that the crisis of the current “participatory” government is being transformed into the crises of the progressives and democracy in our society, people argue that we should return to activism, while also actively questioning the meaning of progress again and reconsidering the meaning of democracy that appears to experience crisis.

What we mean by activism here, though, is not an argument for the recreation of illegal or semi-legal struggles, like democratization movements during the 1970s and 80s, but a proposal for progressive forces to renew themselves and to pursue both official and unofficial activities. In particular, our proposal sharply contrasts with other recent progressive discourses, in that we pursue a comprehensive transformation of Korean society in connection with the gradual integration process of the South and the North. We believe that progressive discourses that do not seriously consider the ongoing, gradual reunification process, characteristic of the Korean peninsula, cannot help being separated from our reality, and thus cannot offer true alternatives to the current state of affairs. The self-renewal of Changbi begins with this kind of understanding of our reality.

This renewal, of course, should be reflected in the writings published in our magazine. Primarily, it should materialize as a new kind of writing that embodies activism. Although not just in Changbi, these days writings in the humanities and social sciences tend to so depend on jargon and academic theories that they often become empty talk. Even if they say something valid about reality, it is often hard for the general public without training in a particular field to approach and understand them. In order to overcome this problem, Changbi, from this year on, will make efforts to be exemplary in presenting accessible polemical writings, closely reflecting reality, sharply critiquing its problems, and presenting appropriate alternatives. We feel strongly that this is a task that Changbi, a magazine aimed at combining literary imagination, practical activism, and knowledge in humanities and social sciences, can do well and, therefore, have an obligation to spearhead.

Also, we are planning to publish an online Japanese edition of Changbi from this spring and an online Chinese edition from next year. In East Asia, where popular cultures, including the Korean Wave, are interacting—but where there is rarely space for critical discourse among various countries, in particular, almost no space for discourses transmitted from Korea to interact with those from other countries—we expect that this project will have meaningful effects. That is, we expect that, through these efforts, Changbi, which led discourses on East Asia early on, can secure a base for the expansion of the public community in East Asia, and at the same time build precious experiences for intellectual training, where we reflect on our discussions from a more universal perspective.

In this issue, we introduce a new design of Changbi, for the first time in ten years, when we adopted a new design in celebration of our 30th anniversary. We have changed the weighty one-line title on the cover to a more stylish one. It emphasizes the original nature of our magazine, which combines creative writing and criticism, or literature and discussion, through a more contemporary image. We also redesigned the pages of the magazine to make it more refreshing and comfortable to read. In addition, we have greatly changed the organization of the contents, adding various “corners,” such as “Challenge Interview” and “Article and On the Scene,” in order to present more engaged and energetic reading material.

This issue’s feature, aimed at bolstering activism, is “What Should We Do in the June 15th Era?” We focus on this era, because we believe that we have entered the unification era, in which a long-term and gradual unification, unique to the Korean peninsula, has been underway since the June 15th South-North Joint Declaration, and because we would like to renew our will to carry out a transformation of society appropriate to this characteristic of our time. Of course, our readers will see that this is a continuation of Changbi’s theoretical explorations. After explorations of our national question, we have presented the division-system theory and argued that unification on the Korean peninsula should not be a one-sided unification, but one in which the agency of both Korean peoples should be maximized. In particular, we proposed the 1987 system theory last year as one of combining Korean society’s transformation tasks with the task of overcoming the division system. Also, as the comprehensive transformation movement that we pursue during this June 15th era has an essential importance in the construction of peace in East Asia, this movement is also connected to Changbi’s continued emphasis on the need to see East Asia as a closely connected unit.

Yet, currently, as we have been working on this feature, the international situation around the Korean peninsula and the US has become discouraging, giving us the impression that the June 15th era is fading. As the US is currently pressuring the North over human rights issues and the counterfeit money issue, the prospect for the future of the Six Party Talks is gloomy. Also, there is a worry that the US-South Korea joint statement about “strategic flexibility” at the South Korea-US Strategic Talk in January this year will have a negative impact on the Northeast Asian situation, including inter-Korean and South Korea-China relations. However, as articles in this feature point out, we believe that the process of gradual integration has already become a general trend that is influencing not only the establishment of alternative development strategies in South Korea, but also the everyday lives of all members of Korean community living in East Asia, including South Korea.

The feature is composed of five articles that approach the significances of the June 15th Era from various perspectives. In his article, which represents a kind of introduction to this feature, Suh Dong-Man reads historical significance into the June 15th era, paying attention to the fact that a great change has occurred in the understanding of our situation since the June 15th summit. Suh sharply criticizes the South Korean progressive camp for their “regressive” understanding of South Korean society, in which a unification-solves-all-problems attitude confronts the other extreme: that peace and democracy should be pursued in South Korea as a self-contained society, regardless of its relationship to North Korea. Instead, he argues that Korean progressives have an essential task in our time to come up with a concrete plan for cooperative South-North development that connects up peace, wellbeing, and development, to practice social transformation and development in both the South and North.

Cheon Byung-You’s article supports Suh’s argument more concretely in the field of economy. His argument is based on the understanding that the problem of polarization in South Korea, which almost all of us consider to be a serious issue, cannot be overcome without a new development model that considers the “factor of crisis and opportunity” that North Korea represents. Cheon presents an alternative development strategy that combines the idea of the Korean peninsula as a single economic zone and those of East Asian division of labor and network-style strategic investment.

While these two articles deal with policies, articles by Kim Elli and Hyeon Mu-am ask what it means for the Koreas to be unified from the perspectives of women and diaspora. They reflect on the universal values of Korean unification. Based on the experiences of South Korean women activists who have participated in inter-Korean exchange activities, the former explores ways of collaboration that acknowledge each other’s differences. This article concludes that a post-division movement is impossible without feminist awareness, aimed at overcoming negative commonalities between the South and North, such as militarism, in line with the notion that we need a movement to overcome the division system, a notion that Changbi has emphasized. The latter article presents a desirable form that Korean unification and an East Asian cooperative body could take, through the lens of the relationship between the Korean peninsula and overseas Koreans. This article argues that unification between the South and North should embrace the variety and flexibility in Korean identities if it aims at a complex nation rather than a single nation, based on the experiences of Zainichi Koreans. This argument offers a valuable lesson. In addition, these two articles are also worth our attention because they show the traces of influence—positive or negative—that the June 15th Declaration have already been exerting on every Korean on the level of everyday life.

Continuing the perspectives of other articles in this feature, Yoo Jae-keon deepens our understanding of the universal significance of the June 15th era, from three dimensions: the Korean peninsula, (North)east Asia, and the world. He predicts that unification on the Korean peninsula will become both a popular and a world-historical event, as it will promote regional collaboration in East Asia and, further, deliver a blow to the globally oppressive system based on geopolitical divisions. Interwoven with polemical arguments aimed at problems in other discourses in the progressive camp, Yoo’s article helps readers to understand such important and relevant issues more clearly.

Brightening this 40th anniversary commemorative issue are congratulatory remarks and suggestions by 11 magazine editors of major domestic and overseas magazines. Their sincere recollections and candid advice, rather than the usual ceremonial well-wishing remarks, are precious gifts. We would like to respond to their gracious wishes with a promise that we at Changbi will aspire to play the role of an essential link in the construction of a critical intellectual network in East Asia.

We hope that our readers pay attention to the newly established “Challenge Interview” corner. The first interview is conducted by literary critic Hwang Jong-Yon with Changbi’s editor Paik Nak-chung, asking him what his positions are on the theoretical and practical tasks of Korean literature. It is highly engaging to witness not only Paik Nak-chung as a critic searching for the rewards of Korean literature, with a focus on creativity in literature as a central task of our time, but also the scene of a lively discussion between two prominent critics. This corner will continue to present animated conversations with the opinion leaders of our time.

Another newly established corner, “Article and On the Scene,” will consist of articles in the humanities and social sciences with a strong topicality. The first article is a heart-felt proposal by the architect Kim Seok-Chul to establish the Korean peninsula as a land of hope by combining the highly controversial Saemangeum Development project and the Multifunctional Administrative City project. The other article is an attempt by Narita Ryuuichi to create signposts for cross-border conversations through an insightful reading of History Opening Future, a common East Asian history book, written by a committee made up of historians from Korea, China, and Japan, from the perspective of historiographical history.

In celebrating Changbi’s 40th anniversary, we adopted a policy of reaffirming its character as a literary magazine, by going to literary scenes more directly. Accordingly, we invited two young literary critics, Lee Jangwook and Jin Jeong-seok, to join our editorial board as standing members. In reflection of our new emphasis, we also offer brilliant creative writings in this issue. In poetry, we present a world of expression shining with the personalities of all generations, from elder master Kim Kyudong to the early-career poet Yi Geun Hwa. The fiction corner is also filled with masterful works by leading and energetic novelists in the contemporary Korean literary scene, including elder novelist Park Wansuh. This issue sees the final installment of the much-talked-about novel serialized in Changbi by Park Min-gyu. We thank the author sincerely for his hard work.

This issue’s literary criticism section is also well thought-out, with Hwang Hieon-Sann’s article analyzing the world of Hwang Byungsng’s poems, filled with the spirit of a “fringe subculture,” and Yu Jung-wan’s article on the phenomenon of popular contemporary American author Paul Auster’s works now in vogue in Korea. Also, Eum Kyoung-hee and Jung Hong-su will be in charge, respectively, of critically reviewing poems and fictional works published in quarterly magazines each season for a year. In addition, 10 writers enrich this issue’s book reviews, including Kim Ki-taek, Park Myong-Kyu, and Hong Sungook, who will contribute book reviews for a year.

We present two special bonuses this issue: a book of works by the winners of the 4th Daesan Literary Awards for College Students and a CD, “When the Candle-lights of Words Bloom,” which compiles poems recited directly by 25 poets, to express our gratitude to our writers and readers, many of whom have been with us for the past 40 years.

Last, but not the least, on behalf of all the editorial board members, I am renewing here once again our promise that, propelled by the mission of our 40-year history, we will work tirelessly to create a magazine that responds to the historical mission of our time. As not only Korean readers but also new East Asian readers will continue to watch how well we keep this promise, we cannot help but redouble our resolve.