[Editorial] Questions Following the Halloween Disaster
In the evening of October 29, many people were crushed to death and injured during a short period of time in an alleyway in Itaewon, where crowds had gathered to celebrate Halloween. Although it was a big downtown gathering, with 100,000 people expected to attend, no measures were taken to ensure the public’s safety. Beginning early that evening, the police had been receiving reports about dangerous conditions, yet no system was activated to control such an emergency or to carry out rescue operations. As phrases heard afterward show—“expected disaster,” “non-existent measures,” “there was no government”—where there should have been a government in charge of protecting and caring for people there was an absence.
In fact, this disaster is symptomatic of the overall current crisis in our national governance, rather than just a matter of a safety system failing to respond to a disaster. Despite the scar left by the 2014 Sewol Ferry Disaster, a preventable disaster that grew unchecked into a calamity was repeated. As a result, an article in our constitution was put to shame: “The government should make efforts to prevent disasters and protect the people from dangers.”
Although the government quickly declared a period of national mourning, it became another lack, as the government avoided investigating the disaster’s true causes and responsible parties; instead, it exposed many citizens—let alone the victims, their families, and the injured—to more pain. In fact, the way our government demanded that we call the victims “the accidental dead,” and urged people not to take advantage politically of the disaster and the sadness arising from it revealed more than just their intention to avoid an investigation into its causes and responsible parties. Officials’ thoughtless and careless remarks caused added misery. Citizens could not help feeling anger and despondency at ludicrous remarks such as: “It is difficult to demand responsibility of officials, as it was an event where people participated spontaneously.” or “It wasn’t a situation that could have been prevented by dispatching police officers and firefighters ahead of time.”
Even more outrageous is the government’s attitude regarding the investigation into the truth of the disaster—that is, the way it shifted responsibility onto others through an emphasis on their principle of a judicial process. While no officials related to the disaster, including the president, reflect on their own responsibilities and duties, they are pursuing legal responsibilities through a “tail-cutting” investigation into first-line police and fire-station personnel. This attitude of emphasizing only legal interpretations, which has been repeated under the current government no matter what the issue, thoroughly lacks an awareness of government officials’ political and ethical responsibilities.
Our long tradition emphasizes love of the people, based on respect for them and their livelihoods, as a necessary virtue of government leaders. In our time, also, the virtues of reliable political organizations and their leaders are related to their love of and care for the people. Caring for the elderly and children, helping those in need, grieving for the dead, taking care of the ill, and aiding those in disasters are basic duties of leaders and officials. However, under the current government, it is impossible to find an awareness about these public-interest qualities. This leadership of a democratic republic reveals a disastrous lack of awareness and concern for the people, not even attaining the level of an old Confucian-based government.
The policy direction of the current government, prioritizing profit over life and safety, resulted in the weakening of the social safety net in just half a year since its taking office. Budgets in areas related to people’s care have continued to be cut. Ongoing fatal accidents in workplaces such as factories and railroads revealed weaknesses in the Serious Disaster Punishment Act, which cannot put a practical break on businesses—and the government does not show any signs of having a will to remedy them. As if to prove the current government’s unstable economic policies, its shoddy response to the seriously adverse consequences of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 to industries in Korea and the way it handled Legoland’s application for rehabilitation were almost disastrous. Besides, the current crisis is not limited to the domestic situation. Beyond the crisis in peace on the Korean peninsula, threats of wars and the rise of militarism are seriously destroying democracy and social order all around the world. Unstable prices for goods and services due to an intensifying climate crisis and wars and the symptoms of economic recession also subject citizens to gradually increasing pain. Indeed, more than at any other time, we need wise and bold leadership that takes care of those suffering.
The signs held up by participants in the candlelight rally commemorating the victims of the Halloween disaster carried words questioning the true function of a state and government. They contained a fundamental question: “How could this be a government?”—just as they did during the Sewol Ferry Disaster. Given this question, which has returned to us, we wonder what kind of government we had hoped for and what efforts we have made to bring it about. What was the government deserving of its name that we wanted to achieve by reforming incompetent politics—politics that disturbed the democratic order and neglected people’s livelihoods? Further, what role have I, a subject of this country, played for my neighbors and society? In our current reality, where there is a hollowness in the basic duties of governance to maintain people’s lives peacefully and to take care of their safety, those questions again arise painfully.
As a result, we should realize keenly that the time right now—that is, when we are coping with the recent Halloween disaster—is a moment of critical importance in overcoming the crisis of our community. Not only do we need communal pressure on the government and officials, to derive from them thorough self-reflection and renovation; but our national assembly should make a best effort to find out the truth of this disaster. And the courts should play their role as the bastion of democracy and human rights, checking both the administrative and judicial branches. Also, the reform of some media and the public sphere that overlook the reporting of the truth of this disaster should not be neglected, and with an attitude of resignation. Citizens should critically think about and urgently discuss the current situation.
Above all, we are at a critical, almost desperate point, where we cannot postpone taking care of our lives and safety. We urgently need the power of our minds—taking care of one another, sympathizing with the pain and sadness of our neighbors, sorting through the tasks and sharpening the questions that have surfaced after the Halloween disaster. When our society recovers the earnest feeling that our government, society, and community are interconnected, the Candlelight’s wish to build a worthy country can be materialized. A critical time, when we should gather the wisdom and wits of everyone, when we cannot loosen the power of thought and reflection, even for a moment, has come upon us.
In this issue’s feature section, we present articles reflecting the theme “Wisdom in Literature in Time of Crisis.” Through literary and discursive diagnoses and analyses of a diversity of literary works about the climate crisis, capitalism, and labor, we explore the way forward for literature in our times. Hwang Jung-a carefully examines what recent critical discourses focusing on macro-narratives did and didn’t achieve, and lays a foundation for critical thinking and literary questions about the current global capitalist system. Arguing that literature that dreams of a changed reality should also aspire to think about transitions and imagine the course of change, Hwang examines the ability for transition that literature should nurture, focusing on short stories by Jeong Ji A and Kwon Yeo-sun.
Kim Mi Jung analyzes changes in the relationship between capital and labor as depicted in recent fiction and how they are inter-related. While assessing the significance of labor represented in the short stories and novels of Jang Ryu-jin, Lim Solah, Park Seolyeon, and Lee Seo Su, Kim explores possibilities for liberating imagination to be capable of thinking “outside” the capitalist system, which, it is no exaggeration to say, wins us over entirely.
Yang Kyung Eon meticulously surveys examples of practices we need in the current climate and ecological crises, after discussing Shin Dong-yup’s “On the Spirit of a Poet.” Emphasizing the rediscovery of poetic imagination and lyric poetry, based on the spirit of a jeongyeongin (“whole farmer”), Yang proposes that we build up hope here and now, as “us” rather than “me,” through an analysis of poems by Lee Jong Min, Jeong Da-yeon, and Jo Onyun.
In his article arguing for the necessity of changing the worldview that formed modern civilization, from the level of feelings, Kim Yong-hui presents a fundamental idea about economic inequality and the climate crisis in our society. Together with the case that we need to pursue fundamental change in our attitudes toward nature and life, based on the Donghak philosophy, his argument that we need literary imagination for the recovery of ecological feelings and aesthetic sensibilities is inspiring.
In “Articles,” Choi Won-sik presents a careful reading of and commentary on Lim Hyung-taek’s Theories of East Asian Narratives and the History of Korean Fiction. His acumen stands out as he examines this unrivaled masterpiece by an author interpreting the process of changes in narrative modes in Korea and East Asia. While analyzing from different angles the latest danger of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, Moon Jangnyeol calmly assesses the possibility of the outbreak of such a war and the degree of its disastrous outcome. Repeatedly, he emphasizes the importance of the peace process on the Korean peninsula, in which peace should be the priority for denuclearization.
In “On the Scene,” Ha Seung Soo contributes an article examining systemic reform ahead of the 2024 general election. While calling on potential agents of reform and exploring alternatives that better reflect the voices of women, youth, and minorities, he examines possibilities for proportional representation in a multi-member district system.
In “Dialogue,” moderated by Paik Young-Gyung, participants Kang Yisoo, Kim Hyun Mee, and Eum Hyejin discuss the necessity of university reform and the role of feminists in it. They emphasize, above all, that the assessment of university reality from a feminist perspective is a process of examining the current state of the Korean society’s democracy. Their conversation presents a lively and productive discussion about various topics, including changes in universities after the me-too movement, the role of a gender-equality institution within universities, and the issue of feminist knowledge production and education.
In “Literary Criticism,” In A-Young offers an engaging exploration of temporal reality in recent novels, focusing on “looping time,” a concept she derives from gaming and genre narratives. “Literary Focus” was held at a local private library, Sijip Doseogwan Poem, located in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do province, continuing our project begun in the spring that visits regions outside Seoul. Librarian and teacher Kim Seon Ae, poet Ahn Sang-hak, and literary critic Lim Jeong Gyun offer honest and sharp reflections on noteworthy works published in the past season.
For “Focus on Author,” novelist Lim Hyeon met fellow novelist Jeong Ji A, who has been enthusiastically received by readers with her recent novel Father’s Liberation Notes. From their meeting we glean exciting behind-the-scenes stories about the birth of this novel, from the author’s childhood memories, to the process of representing her father’s real-life stories in a literary fictional space and various motifs about a wide variety of characters.
Kim Bong Jun’s essay illuminates the history of the art of madang culture, which has increased our society’s creative aesthetics and political imagination, while partnering with the democratization movements in the 1970s and ‘80s. It offers precious insights about the renewed and current significance of the art of madang culture, which joined with the transformative civic movement during the Candlelight Revolution.
In the fourth piece of our “Where I Live” series, publisher and editor Bak Daewoo tells stories about Ayajin in Goseong, Gangwon-do province. Together with the history of the region, with its frequent forest fires, the author carefully and lovingly depicts its unique atmosphere: a community built by refugees from Hamgyeong-do province.
We also offer rich sections of creative writing. New works by 12 poets, including Kim Keun and Choi Back Kyu, brighten this issue’s poetry section, with their various and unique personalities. New short stories by Kim Yi Jeong, Park Min-gyu, Park Seolyeon, Lee Seo Su, and Lee Jae Eun greet our readers, while Lee Ju-Hye’s serialized novel reaches its fruitful conclusion. We thank our readers for their enthusiastic responses to it, and look forward to engaging with it as a book. We ask for our readers’ warm interest in “Book Reviews,” where we introduce valuable works from various fields in every issue.
The main prize of the 37th Manhae Prize in Literature was awarded to the poetry collection I Was There Standing Like a Person With Nowhere to Return by Kim Myung-ki. A special prize was awarded to The World That Met Last Words: Martyrs for the Liberation of the Disabled, Those Who Stay on After Death, planned by Beminor, the media group for the disabled, and written by seven activists, including Jeong Chang-jo. The 24th Baeksok Prize for Literature went to I Love You Like an Old Street And, a poetry collection by Jin Eun-young. We sincerely congratulate all the winners.
We assume that all hearts are heavy from anger and sadness in the aftermath of the recent tragic disaster. In the contributions to this issue we sense a solidarity with pain and sadness, as well as profound shock. We mourn the victims, send our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones, and sincerely hope that the injured have speedy recoveries.
At Changbi we promise to continue working hard and calmly in order to make our way through the current difficult phases of our society, sincerely reflecting on ourselves, and doing so with all our hearts and might.