창작과 비평

[Editorial] This Era of Great Transformation Calls for a Creative Response / Han Ki-wook

The Quarterly Changbi 190, Winter 2020


We’ll most likely remember 2020 as the year of the Covid19 pandemic and the turbulent US presidential election. These two events, historic in their own rights, also feel like the beginning of a grand transformation. A year after its outbreak, far from dying down, Covid19 is stronger than ever, already resulting in more than 55 million confirmed cases and 1.3 million deaths globally. In addition, climate change, which has been transforming and destroying the ecological environment across the world—through heat waves, torrential rain, huge forest fires, floods, the sea rising, and endangered animal species—appears to have become an even greater calamity than the pandemic. Although the situation can change depending on our responses, there is little time left for this.

At this juncture, it is extremely fortunate that Joe Biden was elected US president. As soon as his election had been certified, he made a statement expressing his intention to organize a Covid19 response team and to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Also, it appears that Biden intends to restore or improve the US healthcare system, which Trump damaged, relax immigration regulations, and rectify the issue of lower taxes on the wealthy. In addition, through Biden’s choice of running mate Kamala Harris, of both African and Asian descent, he also demonstrated a will to improve inequalities based on race, gender, and ethnicity. As soon as Biden’s election was confirmed, festival-like scenes unfolded across the United States. Not only was it good that he won a decisive victory, after a temporarily razor-thin lead, but it was also significant that he regained battleground states in the Rust Belt, including Pennsylvania, which Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

Yet, considering it all calmly, it is hard to feel confident through this election result that US democracy is well and sound and that we can be optimistic about its future. “Progressive” media, such as the New York Times and CNN, had to face an embarrassing reality, once the vote-counting had begun, since they had predicted an overwhelming victory for Biden. As many political commentators noted, the fact that the race was as tight as it was—after all the lies and other destructive actions by Trump for four years—was painful. The inconvenient truth is that Biden probably would not have beaten Trump without the Covid19 pandemic and the racial justice movement, and that Trump in fact won some 10 million more votes than he did in 2016, although Biden won 5.5 million more votes than Trump. In short, while more US voters chose Biden, still-great numbers did not decisively reject Trump and his brand of populism.

Particularly disturbing is the fact that Trump won more votes this time among Latino, black, Asian, and Muslim constituents, and even from white women voters. Furthermore, in the congressional elections, the Democratic Party lost seats, rather than winning a landslide, as they had expected. At this writing, although the Republican Party lost one seat in the senate, they won eight more seats in the House of Representatives. In other words, despite Trump’s failed handling of the pandemic and blatantly antagonistic attitude toward racial justice protests, various racial groups, and minorities, many ordinary citizens did not overwhelmingly return to the folds of the Democratic Party and its standard bearer Joe Biden. To the people who had directly experienced the damages of increased inequality of wealth, the virtues of democracy that Biden and Harris argued for—equality, freedom, justice, decency, new possibilities, and truth—did not have enough appeal. Indeed, the majority of them find the mainstream Democratic Party deceitful in advocating for those ideals—and as pro-corporate as the Republican Party. Considering these political undercurrents, it is clear that American democracy is currently experiencing a serious crisis.

In her op-ed piece in the Guardian (November 8), Naomi Klein diagnosed American society are facing a “tsunami of fascism,” which Trump has been leading. Although Biden was nominated as the “safest” choice to defeat Trump, she argues, he was in fact a “risky” choice because he had so little to offer so many citizens. However, it is also questionable whether Senator Bernie Sanders was a less risky choice, as Klein claims, or if the leftists in the Democratic Party could become an alternative for the rebuilding of American society, while playing the role of “levees holding back the tsunami of fascism.” We will have to wait and see how far the Biden administration can go in “healing” the division and confrontation within polarized American society. What is clear is that, if Biden returns to Obama-style compromise politics, it would be not only difficult to heal the divisions but also risky for society.

Witnessing the strange scene in which the current US president protested the election results—without any rational grounds—even after the president-elect was officially declared, we cannot help being reminded of our own Korean revolutionary experience, in which citizens enabled the impeachment of the president through peaceful and persistent candlelight protests and the launching of a new government. To Korean citizens, with this Candlelight Revolution experience, not only was the current US president’s groundless protest of the election result absurd, but it is almost impossible to imagine a president habitually indulging in entirely unscientific statements and actions and being responsible for the world’s worst Covid19 pandemic, not to mention scores of racist and gender-discriminatory statements. One might not be amiss in thinking we should look to Korea for hope of democracy and possibilities of civilization rather than to the United States.

Nonetheless, Korea is not a flawless democracy either. As the ecological crisis becomes clearer, the US and Korea both face challenges stemming from the same root, although their appearances may differ—at this juncture where capitalist mode of production and accumulation, the fundamental cause of this crisis, needs to be changed radically. While the Biden administration should be vigilant in blocking and overcoming this “fascist” current, called “Trumpism,” at the same time as it restores democratic values and institutions damaged and destroyed by the previous administration, the Korean government, born in the process of blocking a similar authoritarian current, needs to clean up deep-rooted injustices, handle ecological crises and economic problems, and continue to break through the division system by raising the inter-Korean relationship to a new level. Only then will the Candlelight Revolution be completed.

In order to accomplish these critical tasks, our government should not only respect specialists’ opinions, but also continue the creative spirit of the Candlelight Revolution by listening to the voices of ordinary citizens and by bravely adopting their new proposals, based on their everyday experiences. In this situation, if our government and the ruling party neglect the basic task of protecting the safety of low-income, working-class people, who are pushed to the edge due to the pandemic, because instead they were paying attention to the concerns of the establishment, including conglomerates and high officials, it is no different from trampling on the vitality of the Candlelight Revolution. Not adopting bold relief measures, using as an excuse the budget shortfall, while also not pushing for tax reform, can intensify wealth polarization. It is partially due to the lack of clear understanding of these changed times on the part of the current government and the ruling party that their attitudes are so lukewarm about reforms. Although Korea today is on an entirely different level from when it was a developmentalist, authoritarian country, in terms not only of the size of its economy but also of its level of democratization, the government’s thoughts remain within the framework of a previous time. When unjust sacrifices and the deaths of workers continue during the half-century anniversary of labor activist Jeon Tae-il’s self-immolation protest, our government is repeating errors in taking too timid an approach to the Act on Punishment of Businesses with Severe Industrial Accidents, which is a minimal safety measure, and in so doing exposing their anachronistic violation of labor and ecological ethics. The same is true of their continued allowing the use of fossil fuel for the generation of electricity, being satisfied with the developmentalist model of bygone days. Although housing is a difficult problem, they should present an effective housing policy model, so that people can live meaningful lives without worrying excessively about money, instead of scolding people for an “excessive obsession with money.” Instead of continuing to argue for stronger regulations, which is based on the regulation vs. deregulation model of the urban development period, it is necessary instead to experiment with entirely new models, such as “basic housing.”

Finally, as the re-establishment of inter-Korean and North Korea-US relationships emerges as an urgent task, with the launching of the Biden administration, we expect that there exists a great opportunity to turn things around, as there are many seasoned specialists, with decades of experience, and as our current president clearly has not only necessary experience but also the strong will to do so. As many people have pointed out, in various places, it would be irresponsible and dangerous to return to the outdated model of “strategic patience” practiced in the Obama era, instead of maintaining and advancing the achievements in the meantime. Claiming that we should wait until the Biden administration has the capacity to pay attention to the Korean peninsula, after first handling its urgent domestic crises, and that it will take the new US administration some time to establish a strategic set of foreign policies—isn’t that also the product of an outdated way of thinking? As we are no longer Koreans under the Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-hye regimes, as the counterparts of US President Obama, we should confidently demand our initiatives on this issue from the US, China, Japan, and even North Korea, and be able boldly to carry out our agenda, in accordance with the importance of our position and vision.


The feature in this issue explores various aspects of Korean poetry—searching for the possibilities of a new kind of community since the Candlelight Revolution. Song Jong-won points out that the Candlelight Revolution and the Covid19 pandemic have awakened civic agency in Koreans and that the citizen is a subject in the making. Based on this argument, he re-evaluates the relationship between citizen and poet, hitherto understood to be in opposition, while revisiting Paik Nak-chung’s argument for “civic literature” in the 1960s, where he argued for the possibility of their concurrence. Song then examines how civic vitality has been embodied in poetry through a close reading of poems by An Hui-yeon and Yi Jeong-hun.

Reminding us that the emergence of eonni (a term for a woman’s older sister) became an opportunity to establish a new community, by redefining “we” and the vitality the term gave to the recent feminist movement, Yang Kyung Eon discusses poems related to “sisters alive” in an engaging article. Perceiving a new kind of interdependency in poems by Jeong Da-yeon and Ju Min-hyeon, and a desire for a new type of community beyond the sharing of generational experiences expressed in the poems by Kim Bok-hui and Kim Hyun, Yang discusses their respective significances.

Jeong Uyeong pays attention to poems focusing on everyday lives. Through the examination of works by Yi Myeong-yun, Park Seung-min, Song Jin-gwon, and Mun Dong-man, Jeong explores how the poetry of realism continues to renew itself, and what new possibilities can be found in them. The article explains the communal sensibilities embodied in the languages of their poems, while also revealing strenuous efforts in everyday lives and clues to solidarity in them.

“Dialogue” discusses various aspects of current societal reality under the topic of “climate crisis and systemic transformation.” Kang Kyung-seok moderated this discussion about problems currently confronting us, such as substance and appearance in the Korean-style Green New Deal, the climate crisis and the division system, and the topic of post-developmentalism and the appropriate level of development, discussing these issues with Kim Sun-chul, Jeong Geon Hwa, and Chae Hyo-jeong, who have long studied the current ecological crisis. It is a dialogue essential and helpful to us, in which we examine why the strong awareness of the climate crisis in Korean society has not translated into better individual practices, and in which we explore and imagine alternatives from various angles.

“Articles” cover a range of important issues. Seo Jungkun examines the process and results of the recent US presidential election, which grabbed global attention, including in Korea. By referring to relevant examples in American democracy, he analyzes the contexts that created chaos in this presidential election, with its unpredictably dramatic scenes. He offers many critical insights, helping us to give serious consideration to what directions the Biden era will take in politics and foreign relations.

Kang Joon-mann discusses metropolitan area centralization and the “extinction of provinces” in a characteristically clear and fine article. His sense of crisis with the collapse of provinces is a concern for all Korean society, and his devoted opinion that the provinces have become “internal colonies” seems to have created keen discussion. With the establishment of a vicious cycle, in which the statement “provinces kill provinces” can be verified, this article calls for more active discussion from us about how to solve this problem.

Yom Mu-woong’s frank comments about Korean Language, Its Turbulent History and Vitality offer rich food for thought about the evolution of the Korean language. Since the creation of the Hangeul writing system, Korean language and writing have undergone many radical changes. In particular, on the threshold of modern times, they have encountered many challenges related to the need to establish a modern writing style in step with modern national tasks. This article invites our readers to engage in the critical process in which we look at the trajectory of our past handling of these challenges and our need to meet current pressing tasks.

For “On the Scene,” Choi Hyun Sook contributed a vivid report about the reality the homeless had to deal with in the past year during the Covid19 pandemic. When everyone was encouraged to stay home, where should they go? No doubt, the brutal situation in which the homeless and socially weak continue to be driven away is one of the darkest corners of this pandemic. For “Essay,” Kang In-soon contributed her memories of her mentor, the late Lee Hyo-chae, who passed away in October. It is a moving portrait of the passionate and humane life of Lee Hyo-chae, who, as a pioneer in women’s studies in Korea, devoted her life to the movement to liberate women, while also working hard to bring about peace and unification on the Korean peninsula. We wish her peace.

“Literary Criticism” offers critical insights about notable recent works of fiction. Baik Ji-yeon analyzes how life, labor, and care are represented in the works of Gong Sun-ok, Kwon Yeo-sun, and Cho Hae-jin, and considers the possibilities of literary imagination that can both preserve individual differences and open up communal relationships. It is a careful and close reading of the struggles and achievements of contemporary works of fiction, which capture the historical meaning of maternity and care, the affect of lives resisting the structure of discarding and pillaging, and the reality of labor that makes it difficult for the socially weak to act in solidarity.

Based on a rich theoretical exploration of the question of “locality” and its literature, Gu Mo-Ryong illuminates locality in the works of Hwang Sok-yong, Kim Hye-jin, and Kim Yu-dam. Sharply questioning whether Korean literature has not neglected locality and space, while regional inequality has been intensifying, he critically argues that the literary process, in which the character of marginality is understood from the perspective of the local, is necessary. Noticing the structure of recollection in Kim Yu-dam’s novels, Lim jeong Gyun examines characters who carry out a subversion of values through repeated recollection. Lim finds both difficulty and the possibility of solidarity in them. In addition, this article helps us understand the rich connotations in their works, through a close reading also influenced by a feminist perspective.

The sections devoted to creative writing boast outstanding poems and short stories. “Poetry” introduces new poems by 12 authors. This colorful array, as diverse as the ages of the contributing poets, stimulates our love of poetry in this cold season. For fiction, Geum Hee, Kim Sehee, Jeong Eun-u, and Choi Jin Young, all up-and-coming writers who are well loved by readers, with high expectations, award us with new short stories featuring original characters and interests.

For “Focus on Author,” Eun Yu met Kim Hyun, who recently published his third collection of poems, Good Times. While this meeting between two writers, with compassionate and insightful perspectives and keen sensibilities toward the world, offers us an engaging harmony, this article enables us to go a step deeper: into the inner world of Kim Hyun’s life and poetry. In “Literary Focus,” Oh Youn-kyung and Jeon Ki-hwa converse with invited literary critic Kim Tae-seon. Their detailed reading of six novels and the secret meanings in human lives and the ethics that underlie them is impressive.

We introduce 11 books in “Book Reviews.” They offer insights on various subjects, including modern Korean history, inter-Korean relationships, feminism, minorities, natural science, and literature. Beyond a simple introduction to good books, we expect that they will be read as serious suggestions for further discussions on important topics.

Last, but not the least, the 35th Manhae Prize in Literature was awarded to Choi Jin Young’s novel, Yi Je-ya, To Sister and the special prize was posthumously awarded to Kim Jong Cheol’s book of literary criticism, Imagination of the Earth. Also, the 22nd Baeksok Prize for Literature went to Hwang Gyu-gwan’s book of poetry, Let’s Let This Bus Pass. We sincerely congratulate all the winners and have published the judges’ detailed comments and the recipients’ remarks.


As we all know, this year we have been enduring an extremely difficult period due to the Covid19 pandemic—an unprecedent disaster in our lifetime. Although Koreans have been relatively successful in handling it, thanks to strong collaboration between the government and citizenry, to the degree that we are the envy of some countries, it has still been claustrophobic, and it is still difficult to foresee steps ahead. The lives of ordinary citizens and marginalized people have become harder and existing problems in our society have intensified. However, while working on this issue, I also found hope: that we can have the strength and wisdom to overcome this time of crisis, which is also within us. I wish all our readers a healthy winter and hope we can live without “social distancing” in 2021.


Han Ki-wook