[Editorial] For the Reorganization of the Candlelight Alliance / Kang Kyung-seok
There is no doubt that the most dominant factor in defining Korean society during the past five years has been the Candlelight Revolution. Many phenomena in this period cannot be explained without referring to this revolution. In the 2020 general election, for instance, it was unusual for citizens to award the Democratic Party of Korea an overwhelming majority of seats in the National Assembly, despite various maladministrations by the self-proclaimed Candlelight government. Since then, extraordinary and unprecedented events have continued to occur, until the recent presidential election. Owing to people’s passionate wish for change in the political climate, the conservative opposition party elected a leader in his 30s who had no parliamentary experience; the presidential candidates elected by the two leading parties were also without any parliamentary experiences, and their contest was unusually fierce and close. In particular, the high level of citizenly consciousness that Korean people have shown in the face of the unprecedented Covid 19 pandemic, for more than two years, cannot be seen as unrelated to the awakening the Candlelight Revolution brought on. However, now that Koreans have returned the government to the forces that had been judged underserving by the Candlelight Revolution, and thus failed in establishing the 2nd term Candlelight government, one could ask: Is the Candlelight Revolution still alive?
Above all, we need to look into the recent political situation, from the formation of the new government’s transition team to the inauguration of President Yoon. Here, also, we are witnessing unprecedented developments. While the new administration’s governmental philosophy and policy directions are unclear, public opinion is even more passionate about the key agendas of the previous administration, notably, the reform of the public prosecutor’s office. Many opinion polls have shown that public expectations for the new administration have been even lower than the approval ratings of the previous administration’s lame-duck period. This is why Professor Lee Il-young’s recent observation about the current political climate is so convincing: “[It is] an unsettled atmosphere, as an overtime of the last presidential election seems to continue rather than the new government’s vision unfolding (Lee Il-young, ‘50 Days of the Transition Team, What Have They Shown?’ Weekly Changbi, May 11, 2022).” As the lessening of support and cracks forming in it for the new administration among groups of voters who supported Candidate Yoon Seok-yeol during the election are already occurring, it is difficult for us to feel that the past five years have ended and there is now a new road for the next five years.
Here it’s instructive to compare the two presidential elections held after the Candlelight Protest. As for the 19th presidential election results, although Candidate Moon Jae-in won only 41% of the votes, all of the votes won by the Candlelight alliance amounted to more than 70%. This happened because a considerable percentage of traditionally conservative voters joined this loose alliance. In comparison, in the 20th presidential election, conservative Yoon Seok-yeol won 48.56%, democratic party candidate Lee Jae-myung 47.83%, and progressive party candidate Sim Sang-jung 2.37%. This occurred because most of the conservative-leaning voters who had participated in the Candlelight alliance broke away. How, then, can we explain the relaxation of support for President Yoon by the voters who had chosen him?
There is no doubt that the Moon administration and Democratic Party are primarily responsible for the mismanagement and dissociation within the Candlelight alliance. However, it would be too early to declare bankruptcy for the alliance just because of the recent presidential election results. It is because the alliance’s centripetal force is still alive that the composition and unity among supporters of the Yoon administration are not so stable. Currently, expectations for the Yoon administration are lower than not only all previous presidential approval ratings immediately after their inaugurations, but often also the election votes the candidate won, indicating a possibility that the voters who had formed the loose fringes of the Candlelight alliance from the Yoon administration will be steadily broken away.
Our interpretation of the current situation should focus on this extraordinary event: a neophyte politician was elected president. After the re-introduction of the direct election system in 1988, South Korean presidents were all individuals with strong symbolic qualities, whether political giants who had undergone a process of verification through long political careers, or leaders who were within the fields of these giants. Their symbolic qualities were a sort of meta-discourse, such as industrialization or democratization; but this does not apply to the current president Yoon Seok-yeol. Rather than symbolic, he represents a platform-like character. In other words, his is not the kind of centripetal and value-formulating leadership that represents the spirit of a time, creates agendas, and gathers and leads various opinions, but instead he is a sort of trend-reflecting hub, in which the desires of vested interest groups gather and scatter. In a sense, it was because the current president was someone without symbolic content that he could connect the naked desires of all kinds of vested interest groups, who find even discursive packaging burdensome. Representative in these vested interest groups are public prosecutors, who have already become the central interest group in our society; the media, intent on increasing its influence and profits, even by encouraging the confirmation biases of public opinion; as well as various interest groups who consider the reckless pursuit of private interests as the order of the world. This alliance of vested interest groups was a desperate countermeasure that reactionary conservative forces, who could not openly reject the spirit of the Candlelight Revolution, had to choose in place of the centripetal forces of new agendas and discourses. Therefore, we may say in a sense that the structural instability of the alliance, which has not reached a value-based association, is natural.
In any case, it would be hard to expect the return of an era of symbolic leadership, such as the Three-Kims era. (The Three-Kims era denotes the period in South Korean politics when two democratization movement leaders, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, and a non-authoritarian conservative politician Kim Jong-pil led the political arena, roughly from the 1980s to the early-2000s. ―Translator’s Note) In a democratic society, real politics is not carried out by a single wise, all-around intellectual, but multiple representatives entrusted with authority by the people. Accordingly, in order to break the alliance of vested interests, a reorganization of the Candlelight Alliance, the work of organizing a majority, should be at the center of the political process. What’s necessary is political reform that reflects people’s yearnings for political change, embodied in the Candlelight revolution, and that reinforces the representativeness of various political wills. Realistically, the Democratic Party became more important than ever as a tool for this reform. However, we should not forget that the Candlelight alliance is more than a simple combination of the Democratic Party and forces of progressive reform. Accordingly, the Democratic Party, progressive reform forces, along with the Candlelight citizens who try to repair and encourage both to advance the Candlelight Revolution, greatly need a measure of self-renewing wisdom. To use a weight-lifting metaphor, we might compare the current political stage to the moment just before the jerk. Although we lifted the weight to just below the chin, we have yet to succeed in our attempt at raising it above our heads. Although we shouldn’t be complacent about the current situation, it is also true that the votes earned by both the Democratic Party and Justice Party were more than half of all votes. The question is how to form the foundation and consensus for reorganizing the Candlelight alliance.
If you believe that the only logic that reads and organizes reality correctly is your own and your group’s interests, then any exploration toward forming a better community is useless. That is why our sensibilities toward the world should be renewed, above all, for the advancement of our society, amidst our need for civilizational transformation. Considering that this renewal has long been the foundation for and purpose of literature, we examine in this issue’s feature how recent literature perceives the world and the contexts for and significance of its change.
Analyzing the poetic worlds of Kim Haengsook, Yi Geun Hwa, and Park Soran, focusing on care, a topic that has drawn serious attention recently, and women’s reality, Song Jong-won asks us to rethink human subjectivity “not around autonomy and independence, but around interdependence and vulnerability.” In his illumination of the works of a woman farmer and poet Choi Jeong his argument expands to include the theme of a renewal of 1990s ecological literature. Agendas such as a “green grammar” and “ecological literacy” that Song argues for through this discussion offer important clues to the exploration of a new relationship between humans and nature.
Examining the relationship between literature and the climate crisis through world literature written in English, Yoo Hui-sok refers to Amitav Ghosh, the Indian-born English author, and argues that what appear to be conflicting causes and solutions for the climate crisis are in fact twins born of a modern scientistic view of the world and humanity. Therefore, what matters is what kind of literature would enable us to break through this modernistic view of the world and humanity. Sharply criticizing prejudices against classical realist literature, which some authors like Ghosh hold, Yoo argues for the “still-present power of realist novels,” citing Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior.
As the pandemic forces us into fundamentally rearranging our understanding of humans, literary representations of non-human beings have become more frequent. Paying attention to this trend, Jeon Gi-hwa offers us a broad overview of Korean fiction dealing with imaginary beings, including “plants, cyborgs, extraterrestrials, and ghosts.” In particular, she comparatively analyzes novels by Kim Choyeop and Cheon Seonran, as well as short stories by Lim Sun-woo and Kim Mella, which introduce tales of strange ghosts outside the traditional grievance-resolution narrative. She calmly persuades us that attention to non-human beings can awaken new sensibilities and offer us momentum to be more closely connected with our world.
Our new reality of a hyperconnected society within globalized capitalism has changed the world as much as did crises in care, ecology, and the climate. Kang Soohwan captures the dynamic change in our digital environment, even more acutely perceived after the pandemic, through novels addressing the struggle between division and connection. While examining notable recent works by Cho Woori, Park So Young, and Hyun Ho-jeong, through the novel phrase “dividual subjectivity,” numerously divided and “datafied,” he forcefully argues that the virtual space where our subjectivity is divided can be the foundation for a new subjectivity.
Examining the Ukraine War and changes in the international order, this issue’s “Dialogue” argues for a major correction to our sensibility toward the world. Moderated by Lee Dong Ki, participants Yoon Seock Jun, Jeh Sung Hoon, and Hwang Sooyoung agree that this war is an inflection point for the international order centered on the U.S. in the post-Cold War era. They diagnose the causes of this change, and estimate its outcomes, while exploring its influence on the future of the Korean peninsula from multiple angles.
The “Articles” corner offers two pieces reflecting on two of the most important tasks in our society. Through a close reading of Paik Nak-chung’s recent book, which captures unexpected points where D.H. Lawrence’s “thought-adventure” meets Korean philosophical and religious legacies, Kang Mi-sook explores the strength and wisdom needed to go through a period of civilizational transformation. Lee Bong-soo’s article analyzing the current state of media reporting on the 20th presidential election persuasively argues for the necessity of media reform, on reasonable grounds, based on his understanding that the uneven playing field created by an ideologically biased media had a direct influence on the Democratic Party’s presidential election defeat.
In “On the Scene,” we offer Kim Eunji’s article examining the political participation of women in their 20s, which is drawing more attention since the presidential election, and Kim Soo Kyung’s article vividly delivering voices from the scenes of struggle for the right of disabled persons to use the subway. It is particularly rewarding to meet these faces of new agents emerging in the fight against discrimination and hate.
“Focus on Author” highlights Kim Yu-dam, who recently finished a serialization of her novel and also had her second collection of short stories come out. Literary critic Lee Jieun met Kim, who continues to write with a focus on care and women’s reality, for an in-depth conversation. We can feel the aspirations of an author who captures changes in human relationships in the family and society exceptionally vividly.
In “Literary Criticism,” we introduce emerging literary critic Sung Hyunah’s article dealing with the relationship that recent young poets form with capitalism. She argues that “young poetry that is not angry” is related not only to the recent shrinking of subjectivity but also to newer explorations carried out beyond anger, through an examination of poems by Choi Back Kue and Choi Ji In. “Literary Focus,” in which Yang Kyung Eon moderates a discussion with reporter Kim Da Eun and poet Park Kyung-hee, is also a venue for acutely critiquing and comprehensively examining recent achievements in poetry and fiction.
The essay project with the theme “the place I live,” which we began in the last issue, introduces an article by Chun Hyunwoo, a welder and columnist. His careful words of farewell, written before leaving his hometown for a job offer in Seoul, will stay with us for a long time. New poems by 12 authors and three short stories by Kim Hye-jin, Park Seon-woo, and Sung Hyeryoung, as well as the second installment of Lee Ju-Hye’s novel, make this issue colorful; while “Book Reviews,” focusing on 11 newly published books in various fields, is filled with a wide variety of thought-provoking arguments and interesting perspectives.
As I finished editing this issue, I felt more strongly than ever how daunting are the many tasks our society should be shouldering. As the presidential election ended and the new administration began, domestic politics and social problems are appearing to reach new inflection points, while changes in the international environment provoked by the Ukraine War are throwing out a lot to think about. Yet, at the same time, movements to overcome the world we have known and to create a better one are also becoming broadly more visible. Changbi’s efforts to open eyes and ears to them and to contribute in our own way will continue.