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[Editorial] The True Meaning of Minsaeng (“People’s Livelihood”)

The Quarterly Changbi 197, Autumn 2022


“A quiet time has not returned.” It is the first line of a poem by Kim Su-Young, “Love, Sluggish.” It seems to suggest that a troubling and worrisome time has begun. When you reach the lines that look like a collection of slogans: “Livelihood, unlimited/Hardship, abruptly appearing/Skeleton, clothes/Dog days, sweltering heat, coming and going,” you realize that the time Kim was depicting was a hard one—and also that the words could be applied to our current world: our harrowing experience of the recent pandemic and a disturbing summer after the presidential election in March. The economic indices predicting stagflation and the current global situation, seemingly heading toward expanding wars, make us anticipate that the current troubles in people’s lives will not go away (“Livelihood, unlimited”). Meanwhile, various unreasonable actions by the new administration make us wonder if “hardship, abruptly appearing” might happen at any time. And this evokes shadows of “skeleton, clothes.” And, finally, serious concern about the climate crisis, aggravated by this summer’s record-high heat and torrential rains—“dog days, sweltering heat, coming and going”—has now settled deep in our daily sensibilities.

At this juncture, our political circles float a familiar term. In the photo with a newspaper article about the controversy over the ruling party’s emergency planning committee, a placard shows the phrase “Minsaeng (people’s livelihood) Only.” The sense of déjà vu this conveys is amplified through ensuing news: a report on the relaxation of various regulations, which makes it easy for vested interest groups to inflate their private profits; a recent TV program on current affairs questioning the function of the newly established Police Bureau, in the context of the police using excessive force in suppressing protests at the anti-THAAD rally in Miryang, the Namildang building in Yongsan, and the Ssangyong Automobile factory. Or consider the thoughtless (and now, fortunately, withdrawn) policy proposed by the new administration to lower the age of schooling from six to five, only in relation to its economic effect and without any discussion within the community of subjects in charge of care; or the absurdly insensitive actions and words some officials in the current administration showed recently at tragic flood damage sites. Their discussion of minsaeng—one might call it “minsaeng without minsaeng”—is farfetched.

Minsaeng” is usually defined as “livelihood or daily lives of ordinary people.” “Livelihood” here is connected to the price of merchandise and mainly indicates how ordinary people manage their daily survival. Terms such as “minsaeng price” and “stability in minsaeng” originated from this context. Thus, minsaeng evokes problems in commodity pricing and people’s livelihoods, with related problems in labor, poverty, education, family, and the elderly. For example, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy approaches the issue of minsaeng according to three important expenses that cause hardship in people’s lives: housing, education, and medical costs. We can also approach the concept through the word seomin (“ordinary people”), a word mentioned as often as minsaeng. According to dictionaries, it means “an ordinary person without official positions or class privileges” or “a person with limited economic means, belonging to the group below the middle class.” Indeed, places where politicians visit to include in images for their election campaigns, such as traditional markets, dosshouses, public transportation facilities, and janitorial workplaces, are sites where ordinary people live their lives and pursue their livelihoods.

Politicians’ interest in minsaeng suggests their care for the lives of people who are threatened in our current unstable society. But a more serious matter is to be addressed here: the scenes of ordinary people’s livelihood are the places where fundamental problems of our society are concentrated. Places where temporary work and small-scale business activities are performed and sites where various forms of care labor, still considered a shadow economy, are done are critical scenes of ordinary people’s livelihood. Therefore, the process of solving the problem of peoples’ livelihoods is not just a matter of solving their survival, but it should be the momentum to transform the system through solving the causes of intensifying inequality, various forms of discriminations, and social instability. Making sure that subcontractors are not sacrificed to horrific industrial accidents, that we no longer read of small-scale business people’s wrecked families in general sections of newspapers, that we create a society where a saying like “Don't get mad, get to the top to get even” no longer works, and that we recognize the noble value of the work of raising children and taking care of the disabled—all are tasks closely related to taking care of minsaeng, ordinary people’s livelihood. At the same time, minsaeng is not a matter different from our society’s urgent tasks of building a world where labor and dreams are inseparable, beyond the current world of speculation and labor-hate that produces terms like bittu (investing on margin), yeongkkeul (betting every penny), and FIRE (financial independence-retire early).

Politics taking care of minsaeng (ordinary people’s livelihood) should also help people love and dream. Taking care of their livelihood is a small part of it. This, of course, is not a task for politicians only. In “Love, Sluggish,” Kim Su-Young says that love became “thicker” during the time of suffering. Even while passing through continuing “layers of scary days and nights,” the speaker says that his song of love somehow penetrates the earth: “My song, like drops of water/Will seep into the earth.” Is this foolish escapism or the poet’s fantasy? Neither. The poem was likely written in 1953—in the midst of the Korean War. Considering this, “Skeleton, clothes” is not simple rhetoric. It suggests that the hardship meant an unimaginable level of pain. In this sense, how fierce and deep a desire for life he must be talking about when he speaks of love sown in the earth! It is not difficult to guess that this love is related to the natural dream of living beings to free themselves from their strictures and to dream of a different future. We also know that, no matter how special the love the poet sang about is, it is the result of a discovery during the process of observing and learning from the lives of people. And that land where Kim Su-Young lived is where we are living now. So let’s learn the song of love rising from that land; let’s not get deceived by the way we live now, but ask: What is the shape of life we really want for ourselves?


Our society fell into deep confusion after the presidential election in March. The current administration and ruling party are recklessly dashing this way and rushing that way, while the opposition, including the Democratic Party, is still not showing any sense of presence and is without a clear vision. Public concern about the malfunction of our country is increasing. It’s not rare to hear the question: “Should we raise the candlelight again?” It is urgent to find the way. Still, we have a not-so-distant memory of directly exploring our way forward amidst confusion. This must be why people are coming up with the phrase “candles again” unawares.

In this issue’s feature, we present reflections on the road the candlelight should take after the 2022 presidential election. Lee Nam Ju examines the current state of the Candlelight Revolution and explores ways to resolve problematic situations inherent in it. Asking why the Candlelight Alliance cracked and how we can reconstruct it, he emphasizes the Democratic Party’s role as a “platform party” open to various social and political forces and demands that they practice politics considerate of transformative centrism. In particular, in the article’s Section 4 he presents concrete and detailed discussions about areas that need changing in the Democratic Party, a message that more readers should pay attention to.

Yun Youngsang discusses the significance and history of progressive politics in Korea through its various phases. His examination of the dynamic changes in and ups and downs of progressive politics in the 2000s is thorough. His argument is noteworthy: that for the current progressive politics, stuck in both conventions and correctness, to overcome current difficulties, it should develop the capability of alliance politics and think about public matters through public forums as a key.

Measuredly, Ju Biung-Ghi evaluates the economic policies of the past five years of the Moon Jae-in administration. His sense of balance stands out when he examines what practical limitations the Moon administration’s economic policies had, even while they boasted positive results in many economic indicators. His critical analysis of the new administration’s economic policies, the keynote of which is to leave everything to the market, is as sharp. As a conclusion, he convincingly argues that the economic paradigm we need now is a departure from the developmentalist model.

Kim Jung-mi’s article is based on her experience in creating and managing afterschool programs and communities for the poor in Incheon. It vividly describes the actual lives of the youth, excluded from the general term “youth generation,” and the ways in which they look at the world. It is moving to witness hints of hope sprouting from the participation of people without abundant economic means in a network of the “caring for one another” and expanding it.

The dialogue New Korean Studies and the Keyword Gaebyeok (“Great Opening”), moderated by Baik Young Seo, with participants Kim Sungmoon, Baek Min Jung, and Ryu Youngju, has both a grand scope and great depth. With the evaluation of Korean cultural capacity and the tasks for Korean studies as its primary goal, the dialogue expands to a discussion about gaebyeok (“great opening”) as a motivating force for the restructuring of Korean studies, in the process of fulfilling the necessity of a new form of Korean studies. Voices arguing that Korean studies focusing on gaebyeok (“great opening”) could be a project to “establish a new direction for Korean studies by reviving indigenous Korean thought” and to “conduct ‘a cultural rewinding’ of the West” are quite impressive. We hope that our readers will also feel the vitality of the discussion, which begins with the diagnosis of Korean studies’ tasks and expands to include gaebyeok (“great opening”) and the Candlelight democracy, and the currents and possibilities of Korean thought inherent in that vitality.

The Articles corner offers two pieces reflecting on important aspects of our society. Remembering late poet Kim Ji-ha, Yom Mu-woong shares with us insights into his life and literature, which he could observe personally and as an astute critic. Through this article, we can deeply feel the hardships the poet had to undergo during a turbulent period of our society as well as the dignity of a respectful memorial tribute. By examining the shadow of K-epidemic prevention, Cho Hyung Keun reveals various contradictions in our society. In the process of investigating the points neglected in the narratives of the success of Korean epidemic prevention, he exposes the elements of hate and secretive aspirations for authoritarianism latent in our society.

In “On the Scene,” Naomi Klein astutely points out that the Ukraine War and the climate crisis are not unrelated—that the same causes lie beneath them both. According to her, the combination of our strong dependence on fossil fuels, the rightists’ obsession with an idealized past, and the way of thinking that takes for granted the boundless extracting of earth’s resources to sell in the global marketplace intensifies climate crisis and calls for wars focused on fossil fuels. Klein emphasizes that our urgent task is to practice the green revolution as actively as waging a war.

The article by Kim Kyungwon and Park Sunyoung offers us various perspectives about the reality and problems in fishing villages in relation to international certification activity for the sustainable environment and the production of responsible marine products. Their point—how the health of marine ecology and the life of conscious coastal residents can be interdependent—requires our attention.

“Literary Criticism” offers a valuable and timely discussion of recent literary achievements. Focusing on works by female poets, Jang Eun-young leads us into an engaging discussion on how recent Korean poems “expand awareness of the care economy into the public space, reflect on the problem of equality, and talk about a commune where political power is shared.” Kim Yo Sub gives an overview of novels and short stories depicting the act of listening to forgotten pasts and analyzes the sense of solidarity and effort in exploring a better life revealed in them.

Poet Sin Yong-Mok, literary critic Choi Jin Seok, and editor Kim Namhee participated in “Literary Focus.” Specialists who have worked closely on literature in their respective fields, they selected significant works published in the past season and had an insightful and fruitful conversation based on their experiences and expertise.

For “Focus on Author,” novelist Kim Seong Joong met Lee Jangwook, author of Trotsky and the Wild Orchid. A string of lively questions and answers both witty and serious continuously grab our attention, as entertaining as watching a doubles game with partners working in tandem.

Our essay series with the theme “the place I live” continues with a contribution by poet Kim Haeja. In it, we encounter stories about the poet’s neighbors, who are as much poet-like as the poet himself, unfolding at the foot of Mt. Gwangdeok in Cheonan, where he lives. After reading it, you will feel like you’ve been given a healthy meal of fresh vegetables.

“Book Reviews” offers the opportunity of meeting authors, leading us to valuable books through good introductions. The current issue offers 12 reviews, covering more than the usual number of books, with a wide variety of thought-provoking arguments and interesting perspectives.

The “Poetry” section is also abundant; we introduce new poems by 12 writers, including Kim Sang Hee, winner of the 2022 Changbi Award for Young Writers in the poetry category. Together with new short-stories by Kim Jung-ah, Jeong Sun-im, and Choi Eun-young, we include a short story by Joo Youngha, winner of the 2022 Changbi Award for Young Writers in the fiction category. The third installment of Lee Ju-Hye’s novel makes this issue’s creative writings even more powerful.

We congratulate poet Lee Kim Sang Hee, novelist Joo Youngha, and literary critic Kim Yo Sub for winning the 40th Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. At the same time, we are publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature, and we urge our readers’ interest in them. We’ll publish the winners in the winter issue.


Every time we plan a new issue of Changbi and see it materialize, thanks to contributions and assistance from many writers and editors, I feel touched by its miraculousness. I also realize how substantial the Korean people’s capabilities and wisdom are and how they continue to grow. I also feel proud of participating in the scene where they are actively created and occurring. Although the political and economic situations are volatile, both domestically and abroad, and the climate crisis gloomy, I trust the creativity, efforts, and cooperation of human beings, who gather their strengths to forge a way forward. I believe that sharing this trust and realization is Changbi’s task. It was a rewarding summer performing this commission through this issue.



Song Jong-won