[Editorial] We Cannot Go Back—So Let’s Work For a Better Future / Paik Young-Gyung

The Quarterly Changbi 188, Summer 2020

 
 

A few months ago feels far away now—and the Covid19 pandemic has gone through many ups and downs. Around late April, the situation seemed to have stabilized, as the number of cases entering Korea from abroad was decreasing. However, now we’re worrying about a possible increase in incidences with on-site school openings. As the Covid19 crisis will not be entirely over, even if a vaccine is developed and distributed, now we are facing a reality in which we should reorganize our daily routines with the prevention of epidemics in mind. In the midst of this stark reality, while all events and performances planned for this spring are being cancelled, we are saddened by having to watch so many important events—the April 3 memorial service, the Sewol Ferry Incident memorial event, the 60th anniversary of the April 19 Revolution event—from far away. And all this has happened within the span of about three months.

Even in this situation, though, the general election was held without any problems, thanks to the will of our citizens to bring about a new politics through their own participation. There were voices against holding the general election as planned, not only because of concerns about the spreading of the epidemic, but also because of the possible unfairness to overseas Koreans who could not participate in the voting due to restrictive situations in the countries where they reside. There were also objections due to the compounding problem of the spurious “satellite parties” that had suddenly emerged shortly before the election. In the end, there were no new cases of infection originating from the election process, which brought a landslide victory for the ruling party. Many people credited the current government’s decisive victory to its successful response to Covid19; but the general trend in this direction was already clear, although people’s disgust at the opposition United Future Party, which has been consistently incompetent and irresponsible, even in a crisis like the Covid19 epidemic, might have advanced their collapse a bit faster. Koreans had entrusted the current government with the responsibility of pursuing the transformation of our society after the Candlelight Revolution, and, through this election, our citizens offered it the opportunity and power to carry it through, while also urging it to fulfill its duty to do so.

There’s also the opinion, however, that because the successful response to Covid19 epidemic was due to a response system that had been reorganized after the previous MERS epidemic, it cannot be viewed entirely as an achievement of the current government. However, considering the previous governments’ behavior, which did not warrant citizens’ trust, it is not an exaggeration to say that the kind of active cooperation of Korean citizens we have witnessed so far—to measures considerably limiting their individual rights—in this crisis situation was possible only because of their trust in the current government. Considering the disastrous situations now occurring in many so-called “advanced countries” in Europe and North America, there is no reason for us to deny that the Korean government’s efforts were exemplary. And it is ridiculous to interpret this successful result, which was possible only thanks to the state’s capability and citizen volunteerism, as an intensification of statism or the revival of a surveillance society. Nevertheless, we should be careful about the possibility that this achievement could turn sour.

A recent statement by President Moon Jae-in, on the third anniversary of his inauguration, expressed his government’s confidence in finally being equipped to legislate reform bills and carry out reforms, as well as his vision for Korean society after Covid19. Above all, thanks to the pride from Korean responses to the epidemic becoming a world standard, his vision includes plans to nurture bio-tech industries and “untact” [non-contact] industries in different fields, including medical care, education, and the distribution of goods.

This “Korean New Deal,” aimed at turning Korea into “a world factory of cutting-edge industries,” by strengthening its digital infrastructure, so that it will be prepared for an era of epidemics, was immediately criticized because it did not appear to address the old “innovative growth” framework. The government immediately followed this statement with an additional one: about a plan for a “Green New Deal.” Nevertheless, this second announcement could not avoid the criticism that it is really only a continuation of the “green growth” discourse that does not include any awareness of ecological transformation, since it does not include even strategies for CO2 emission reductions. Indeed, the current Green New Deal plan does not express any urgency about ecological problems and the climate crisis, which are likely the root causes of the current Covid19 crisis. Also, while the government stated that the recent successful efforts with Covid19 came thanks to medical personnel and the general public, it does not include any plans to address the problems all of us have faced during the handling of the Covid19 crisis, such as the lack of adequate care and the reevaluation of essential labor and better security for essential workers.

Although some people even argued that overcoming a national crisis is the Korean people’s special strength, and although we might be able to successfully respond to a temporary crisis, we cannot respond to a long-term and chronic crisis with only with our will and our wits. There is some truth to the argument that we successfully responded to the Covid19 crisis only because we have a labor force used to outrageously long hours and relatively low wages, not only in nursing but also in diagnosis and epidemiological investigation. And we were able to live without face-to-face interactions thanks to advanced delivery systems dependent on a high-intensity, low-wage labor system that threaten the lives of its workers. Call centers that support our online living style with low-cost labor are also a key factor in Korea. In this sense, to a considerable degree, our success came thanks not only to high-tech and civic awareness, but also the reality of our society operating by “grinding” manpower.

The biggest achievement in the current crisis would be bringing to the forefront of public discussion a discourse on alternatives that have previously seemed impossible. Recently, President Moon presented an employment policy that included laying the foundation for national employment insurance and establishing a national employment support system. Also, there is now an ongoing public discussion on basic income measures, because it has been drawing attention since the introduction of emergency disaster financial support. In fact, these are measures we cannot forgo in order to handle the crisis we’re in the midst of.

However, if this disaster continues in the long term, would the measures already taken be sufficient? Can citizens support their livelihoods with only temporary emergency disaster financial support? If the current condition continues, in which we cannot conduct face-to-face classes, how should we carry out education? Above all, who will take care of the children of working parents? In our society, already suffering from the pressures of long work hour and a performance-based system, who could take care of whom if a massive number of people fall ill? Although the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention says our society should be a place where the sick can rest, it is not an easy task to balance labor and rest even now, when we’re enduring the direct fear of Covid19, let alone at a later time.

As we consider all the things we have to do, it becomes clear that digital technology may be a large part of our response to an era of epidemics; but at the same time it definitely would not be the key. Even after overcoming the current crisis, other infectious diseases will surely occur, and eventually we will have to confront an even more-serious crisis due to climate change, as long as we continue to maintain our current lifestyle. What’s required of us, facing a crisis of existence, is to distinguish between what’s necessary and what’s not, and to reorganize our society in the direction of prioritizing care over profit, and sustainability over economic development. The future in store for us is not one where we can maintain our current standard of living by competent epidemics control, without giving up the conveniences we have been taking for granted.

We should appreciate the current achievements in epidemic control in Korea because they have created the momentum for a grand transformation that should be made and a space for discussions about it, by handling the current crisis relatively well. It is an achievement that we can be proud of, one that enables us to secure a space for examining a possible new society and practical discussions about it. It is an achievement that would have been impossible if we were entirely consumed by the crisis. However, if we are so carried away by this achievement that we forget those who were sacrificed along the way—citizens who were infected in poor facilities and labor conditions, and thus sometimes subject to hatred, discrimination, and human rights violations—and the victims of Covid19—who could not be given proper funereal services amidst concerns about contagion—the achievement’s meaning will fade, no matter how great it is. Unless we forget the fire at the warehouse construction site that happened again, ahead of May Day, and persistent deaths at labor sites, we cannot indulge solely in self-praise. Therefore, we need most urgently to pursue a fundamental transformation of the way we live, even while we cope with the current crisis. That is why Changbi’s argument that we need to organically pursue the dual project of adapting to and overcoming modernity, doing so in order to truly transform our modern system, becomes even more important now, when we are also looking at a great transformation to overcome our way of living that has caused a climate crisis.

This issue’s main theme encompasses finding a direction for our society’s great transformation in the post-Covid19 era, using the Candlelight Revolution as a key, and finding clues to this transformation in our current reality. The “Feature,” titled “What Is Our Literature Struggling With Now?”, confirms that Korean literature, which has been expanding its points of contact with reality, is gaining new vitality, while dismantling existing thoughts, knowledge, and affects. And it illuminates remarkable ways with which authors engage in struggles in this scene of literary transformation. Based on the understanding that the Candlelight Revolution in Hwang Jung-eun’s fiction is a concept that includes a “revolution of the revolution,” Kang Kyung-seok questions the “flat” argument of some that equates the adjudication of the presidential impeachment with the Candlelight Revolution. While analyzing how the ongoing Candlelight Revolution is related to contemporary fiction and criticism, Kang examines various aspects of a literary imagination that tries to detach itself from our ordinary, conventional constitution. Through this process, he newly highlights the meaning of literary condemnation and the overcoming of an unjust reality and argues for the importance of our search for what will come next, based on our current situation.

Through a careful analysis of fictional works by Kim Yu-dam, Kang Hwa-gil, and Jang Ryu-jin, Shin Sat-byul discerningly examines different places where their narratives of inequality become meaningful. As their works vividly depict lives of the disadvantaged, from gender, region, and class discrimination, while also showing us possibilities for new relationships beyond the discursive and power structure of the current reality of inequality, she pays special attention to our collective wish for a “caring democracy,” which operates as an undercurrent in their works, and has also been an important political force driving the Candlelight Revolution. While analyzing recent poems in terms of the relationship between actual and virtual realities, Cho Daehan focuses on a group of poets who live in a unique manner in the world in which the two realities overlap. The way these poets or speakers within the poems construct themselves, relying on a virtual reality created by themselves, against the invasion of actual reality, appears to be a vigorous effort to survive our cruel reality of digital neo-liberalism.

“Dialogue” explores the issue of our modern Korean language in terms of the modernity framework. After considering the process of ups and downs that Korean has experienced throughout our tumultuous modern history, four intellectuals—Korean linguists Jung Seung-Chul and Choi Kyeongbong, Chinese literature scholar Lim Hyung-taek, and literary critic and English literature scholar Paik Nak-chung—take a careful look at its current status. While overviewing how the Korean language standardization attempt, ongoing since the late 19th century, has been carried out as a project of modernization, they also critically examine various contemporary institutions controlling the language, such as the standard language and loanword orthography. By going far beyond the boundary of Korean linguistics, and expanding our thoughts into the areas of the double project of modernity and the theory of the commons, we hope that this dialogue, touching in broad strokes on where our language life stands now and what possibilities it has, will lead us to a livelier discussion about the Korean language.

“Articles” presents four papers discussing essential concerns of our society. First is a highly meaningful conversation between Changbi’s vice editor-in-chief, Lee Nam Ju, and former Blue House chief of staff Im Jong-Seok, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the June 15th South-North Joint Declaration. During a frank and engaging conversation about South-North Korea and North Korea-US summits, which had been breathtakingly going on and drawing worldwide attention, it is encouraging to see them confirm the real possibility that the Korean peace process could be settled, if we can overcome many customary practices that have been blocking its progress. By interpreting the results of the 21st general election from various angles in relation to the Candlelight Revolution and the 1987 system theory, Kim Jong-yup helps us to understand the current political topography of our society more deeply. What is particularly significant is this article’s message urging the Moon Jae-in government to appreciate the victory of the democratic camp as an achievement of the candlelight, which requires the government to understand its historical mission, and to confidently carry out the tasks for this new era in the current political topography, which is showing signs of overcoming the 1987 system.

Kim Sora explores the issue of digital sexual assault, revealed in the “Nth Room Case” incident. Digital sexual assault, including illegal videos, which have been treated as a trivial and private matter under the pretext that they are a reality of male sexual desire, has already settled as an industry in our society. Kim convincingly argues that a fundamental solution to this problem will not be achieved through the punishment of the perpetrators alone, but by addressing the social structure that fosters both victims and perpetrators.

Noting the fact that many people began to see the world differently through the Covid19 crisis, Peter C. Baker argues for a transformation of rare moments of solidarity into political actions. His proposal resonates greatly: to plan for a new society even while dealing with the current reality in an emergency mode, as we not only cannot but should not return to the past “normal,” in order to cope with the climate crisis to come.

The two articles in “On the Scene” are essential to our thinking about health and healthcare after the current Covid19 crisis. Discussing the poor labor condition of customer-service workers in call centers, still quite invisible despite the temporary attention paid to them because of a recent case of mass infection, Kim Gwan-uk brings us vivid stories of people whose human and health rights are being violated. Kim’s argument that viruses can threaten us any time across the barrier line unless we provide a healthier reality for the actual places of living is convincing. Also, the pandemic situation is sure to revisit us, as a public health crisis creates issues that are not raised in the field of general healthcare. Paying attention to this matter, Choi Eun Kyung requests that we consider essential questions in order to prepare for a healthcare system in the era of pandemics, thrust upon us by the Covid19 crisis, such as how much we should sacrifice individual freedoms for the prevention and control of an epidemic, and what we should do to prepare in order not to unilaterally depend on the sacrifices of medical personnel.

Creative writing in this current issue is also brilliant. We introduce new poems by a wide range of 12 poets, from newcomers like Yi Hui-hyeong and Jeong Jae-yul, to the well-established Shin Daechul. In fiction, there’s a novella by Lee Ju-Hye and short stories by Kwon Yeo-sun, Kim Keum Hee, Myeong Hak-su, and Yoon Sung-hee, which offer enjoyable and moving stories with unique perspectives. Hwang Jung-eun’s essay also feels like a work of fiction; it has lingering effects demanding that we think about what kind of daily diary records these days will feel like in the future.

For “Focus on Author,” Hwang Gyu-gwan met poet Baek Mu-san, whose 11th book of poetry, On a Morning in These Pathetic Times, was recently published. Not only is his radical thinking about time transcending the distinction between clock and psychological time noteworthy, but also his search for a “common self/subject,” “intermediation,” and “commonality,” based on the idea that “my subjectivity does not reside just within myself.” It is evocative and thought-provoking. In “Literary Focus,” two critics, Yang Kyung Eon and Yang Yun-eui, engage in a lively conversation about six books of poems and fiction with guest novelist Baek Minsuk. “Book Review,” which critically introduces 11 noteworthy books in various fields, also offers engaging and fruitful reading.

The contest for the Changbi Prize in the Novel, which began in 2007, celebrates its 13th and last anniversary this year. We thank everyone who has shown an interest in this contest, our attempt to discover new narratives, and we promise to explore various other ways to bring vitality to Korean literature.

 

They say that the current pandemic is the first one in a century. Although we have been controlling it well so far, it is also a situation in which it is difficult to see just a step ahead. Many people’s daily lives have been shaken to their foundations, and the longer the situation lasts, the stronger may become the voices calling for the return to pre-Covid19 “normal.” It is natural to feel afraid of and nervous about this situation, in which we cannot go back to previous times. As our government seems timid about taking steps toward a fundamental transformation of the current system, some criticize it, saying the current “Candlelight” government doesn’t seem that different from previous ones. However, there is no denying that our society’s attitude toward citizen safety and minority rights has changed. Changbi promises to participate in this work of building a new world, while gladly coping with these difficult times, when the existing system is shaken and new common sensibilities are being created. We trust our readers will also join us on this path to creating a better future, with a sensibility of solidarity and co-living, even more pressing during this period of social distancing.

They say that the current pandemic is the first one in a century. Although we have been controlling it well so far, it is also a situation in which it is difficult to see just a step ahead. Many people’s daily lives have been shaken to their foundations, and the longer the situation lasts, the stronger may become the voices calling for the return to pre-Covid19 “normal.” It is natural to feel afraid of and nervous about this situation, in which we cannot go back to previous times. As our government seems timid about taking steps toward a fundamental transformation of the current system, some criticize it, saying the current “Candlelight” government doesn’t seem that different from previous ones. However, there is no denying that our society’s attitude toward citizen safety and minority rights has changed. Changbi promises to participate in this work of building a new world, while gladly coping with these difficult times, when the existing system is shaken and new common sensibilities are being created. We trust our readers will also join us on this path to creating a better future, with a sensibility of solidarity and co-living, even more pressing during this period of social distancing.

 

Paik Young-Gyung