[Editorial] Let Us Return to the Original Intentions of the Candlelight Revolution / Lee Nam Ju

The Quarterly Changbi 189, Autumn 2020

 
 

The prognosis of the Covid-19 pandemic is still highly uncertain, with a clear and ongoing trend of accelerated global spreading. We are dealing with not only immediate inconveniences, but also heightened anxieties about forthcoming changes in our lives. Nevertheless, so far we have been able to confirm the strength of our society through our response to this pandemic, and to encourage one another with confidence, believing in our ability to handle this challenging task. The result of last April’s general election also reinforced our belief in our strength; however, during the period of only about four months after the general election, our situation has changed greatly. Above all, due to a rapid recent decline in the approval ratings of the current government and the ruling party, the motive power for change in our society has clearly weakened. Even among supporters of the Candlelight Revolution, doubts have been growing about the government’s and the ruling party’s approaches to the revolution and their abilities to fulfill it. In a word, a red light is on for the Candlelight Revolution. Recently, we also see signs of a resurgence in the Covid-19 cases. Still, we cannot simply indulge in pessimism and resignation. We must coolheadedly analyze how this has happened and seriously examine what direction the Candlelight Revolution should take.

Regarding this, we need to re-evaluate the meaning of the last general election result. Although the overwhelming victory of the ruling party, as it secured almost 180 seats out of 300, is quite significant politically, we cannot consider this result to objectively reflect the distribution of public opinion in our society. In the proportional representation voting system for 100 seats out of the 300, the ruling party and other parties with similar political orientations acquired only around 40% of the vote. In other words, the ruling party secured an overwhelming majority only thanks to the single-member district system (accounting for 200 seats out of 300), which overly favored the ruling party in the general election this time. Accordingly, although the government and ruling party face strong demands from their supporters for faster and more active reforms, they are also facing a situation in which they cannot always expect majority support for their attempts to meet those demands.

It is not easy in this situation to continue to pursue changes worthy of the demands of the Candlelight Revolution and to take on challenging new tasks that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown at us. However, it is difficult for the government and ruling party to use this difficulty as an excuse for their role in the weakening of the motive power of change in our society. No matter what, there can rarely be any political situation more favorable to the pursuit of change than an overwhelming majority of seats in the National Assembly. It has been a problem that state affairs have been conducted without a clear understanding of the power and responsibility entrusted in them by that overwhelming majority of assembly seats.

This lack of a clear understanding is not accidental, though. The current government and ruling party have encouraged and taken great advantage of the extremely polarized political situation until recently. The establishment of satellite parties during the last general election was an example of this attitude. They have continued the same practice in the conducting of state affairs after the general election. Instead of using their power to create policies based on a new vision and to expand the general public’s support for them, they continued to take advantage of the polarized political system, like aiming at wrong targets, and to focus more on political mobilization. We cannot view this practice as reflecting the will of people expressed in the general election and succeeding the spirit of the Candlelight Revolution.

Regarding the reform of the Public Prosecutors’ Office, which was an essential demand of the Candlelight citizens, not only was relevant legislation done early this year, but also an environment to establish action plans through legislative procedures was fostered through the general election. Nevertheless, the only impression the public got was that the government and ruling party have been focusing only on removing specific prosecutors within the office. The reform proposals presented in late July by the Committee on the Reform of the Prosecutors’ Office under the Ministry of Justice increased people’s doubts about the purpose of this reform, as it included measures fortifying the government’s control over the Public Prosecutors’ Office. As a result, even the motive force for pursuing the original agenda of reforming the Public Prosecutors’ Office, including the establishment of the Senior Civil Servant Corruption Investigation Agency, has weakened. The same is true of the issue of real estates. People had already been very disappointed with the government, which overissued timid and extemporaneous measures to counter the rapid inflation in housing prices, without presenting long-term fundamental alternatives that could guarantee people’s right for housing. In particular, people have also been greatly worried that the government seems to have been neglectful of the issue of the balanced development of regions. Nonetheless, people have not given up on their expectations that the current government has been doing their best in tackling the real estate issue, which was why they supported the current government and ruling party during the last election, hoping that they would tackle it with renewed energy after the victory. However, after the general election, senior advisors to the president repeated inexplicable behaviors and the government has also dealt with those officials indecisively, causing public doubt to spread wildly about the current government’s will to solve the real estate issue. Measures enabling an expansion of housing supply in the greater Seoul area, and in particular within Seoul itself, is not only far from being a fundamental solution to the problem, but also most likely a sure way to concentrate population in the greater Seoul area, which is the major cause of housing price inflation.

The result of all these confusions was the weakening of the Candlelight coalition and a decline in the approval ratings of the government and ruling party. This decline in approval ratings is a clearly a negative signal for the future of the Candlelight Revolution, as the government and ruling party are easily identified with the Candlelight Revolution, for various reasons. However, we also should not allow the problem of the current government and ruling party to be connected to the denigration of the Candlelight Revolution itself. We should not give in to such a sentiment. Fortunately, and naturally, if we think clearly, the decline in the approval ratings of the current government and ruling party is also happening within the magnetic field of the Candlelight Revolution. What triggers the decline in their approval ratings is not regressive issues, but their insufficient response to progressive issues, such as gender equality, secure housing rights, and the reduction of income inequality. The majority of Koreans still want and expect that the current government and ruling party will fully tackle and appropriately solve these issues. In addition, it has become clear to everyone that the issue of climate change and ecology can no longer be avoided.

However, it has become less certain to the eyes of the Korean people who might be able to take on these tasks better and present future-oriented solutions for them. What is clear is that neither the ruling party nor the opposition party can solve problems appropriately and secure people’s support if they try to take advantage of the agenda only for political gain. The government should also realize that their birth through the Candlelight Revolution does not automatically guarantee their will and ability to solve the problems. They need to demonstrate renewed efforts in their new appointments, policies, and management of state affairs, if they want to avoid criticisms that they are not the Candlelight power, but “only their own power.” They have to reconsider in what political environment the Candlelight Revolution began and why this revolution could garner broad-spectrum support from the absolute majority of our society. Only then could they regain people’s trust and approval and lead the change in its center. At the same time, citizens who participated in the Candlelight Revolution should also continue to be vigilant, to make sure that issues raised in the revolution will not drift but continue to go forward, by sometimes criticizing and at other times supporting the government. The time of testing our loyalty to the Candlelight Revolution is drawing near to us.

 

The work of examining what changes the Covid-19 pandemic demands of us is another starting point for reactivating the Candlelight Revolution. We cannot claim that Covid-19 created a brand-new problem that had not existed before. However, it is clear that it asks us to bring a renewed will and changed approach to the problems, for which we had hard time finding solutions even as we knew doing so was important. We have to approach such problems as democracy, the transformation of our society, and economic paradigms quite differently than we had done and with a resolution unlike before. The feature of this issue, “Challenges Covid-19 Has Thrown at Us,” is our effort to address this demand.

Hwang Jung-a’s article discusses the Korean approach to the current pandemic in relation to the deepening of democracy in the country. While critically examining domestic and overseas evaluations of the so-called Korean success in its response to the pandemic, she argues that the heart of this issue is not the opposition between state control and individual freedom, as some people seem to believe; but, rather, she argues that what’s at stake is the formation of collective subjectivity that “could collectively embrace the state’s intervention, while both demanding such intervention of the state and exercising a ‘democratic and popular control’ over it. While identifying the seed of such a collective subjectivity in the ongoing Korean experience, she explores the possibility of new thinking that could germinate this seed in relation to the concepts of the “commons” and “fraternity.”

Paik Young-Gyung argues through a feminist, post-developmentalist theory that fundamental social change after Covid-19 cannot be made without a re-evaluation of care-giving and reproductive labor, whose value has not been fully recognized in the current system. Although democratization of care is essential to ecological transformation, the current system of production puts a limit on the work of carrying out care democracy and a full appreciation of the value of care labor. Therefore, she argues, we need to bring to the fore the issue of democratization of care as an important agenda in the grand transformation of our society through the alliance of forces currently carrying out various aspects of care labor.

Lee Hana shows us vividly, through her analysis of our experience of the current Covid-19 pandemic, how heavily our society is dependent on schools, that is, how schools have not only been a scene of infinite competition for entrance exams, but also carried out many important functions in our society. She reminds us how we need to expand democracy in schools, in particular, to listen attentively to the voices of students, were the school ecosystem—one of the areas that support our society yet has not been duly appreciated—to appropriately perform its role in society.

Scrutinizing the reality of farmers and agriculture, Jeong Eun-jeong discusses a number of issues, such as school lunches and ecofriendly agriculture, the serious manpower shortage in the countryside and the problem of embracing migrant workers, and the relationship between technological change and farmers, in the context of the current pandemic situation. In particular, by pointing out that “the expectation that an agricultural policy favoring farmers and environment that did not exist before Covid-19 would suddenly be established after Covid-19 is an utter illusion,” she asks us to rethink, in the current environment where post-Covid-19 discourses are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain, where we should begin our work to overcome the current crisis.

“Dialogue” tackles the question of the basic income, which has emerged as a hot-button issue in the current situation, where the government paid disaster financial assistance to all people, after heated debates. Lee Il-young has moderated an animated discussion by Kim Hyunwoo, Yang Jae-jin, and Yoon Hong Sik about various aspects of the basic income, such as the meaning of disaster financial assistance, the effects of the basic income and its relationship to the existing welfare system, its significance in changing capitalism, and the youth basic income. This dialogue offers a great opportunity for us to understand the major issues of the basic income and what positions collide with regard to it, and to evaluate them.

“Articles” offers abundant discussions about various topics. Lee Jungchul analyzes where the Korean peninsula peace process stands now, while retracing its recent developments from the “No-Deal” outcome of the Hanoi Summit to the recent state of affairs in and around the peninsula. It is particularly engaging to see how he solves riddles that have puzzled us in the process, by applying newly revealed, behind-the-scenes workings glimpsed in the memoir of John Bolton.

Han Ki-wook examines the significance of systemic racism prevalent in American society, as revealed in the recent killing of George Floyd, by examining examples from American literature. Through convincing arguments about Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Richard Wright’s Native Son, Han offers a keen analysis of the crossroads between racism, which was once embodied in the slavery system, and the capitalist economic system. While appreciating the current Black Lives Matter protests as a significant response to a new form of racism, Han also forcefully suggests that the future of American democracy requires a discussion in a broader perspective than before.

Nam Kijeong examines the interaction between the peace process on the Korean peninsula and the Korea-Japan relationship. Through this examination, he emphasizes the importance of overcoming the 1965 system in Korea-Japan relations, and, more concretely, renewing and continuing specific recent history, which already began decades ago between the two countries, based on the advanced understanding of each other’s histories and efforts to expand a peaceful relationship—all for the sake of forming a virtuous cycle.

Park Yeo Sun discusses the “thought adventure” that Paik Nak-chung has been engaged in throughout his life, by examining two recently published books by him. Park analyzes from various angles what significance the understanding of D.H. Lawrence as a gaebyeok thinker has in Paik’s theory and practice, and what Paik tries to tell us about the present and future of our world through that understanding.

Also, an article by Mr. Nam Jae-Hee, who has continued to contribute to important discussions in our society through his insightful utterances, offers us abundant food for thought, with simplicity, by discussing the road our democracy should take, applying the concept of “fraternity.”

“On the Scene” presents an article by Rebecca Solnit, who has sharp eyes, always finding neglected issues within familiar topics. By pointing out how patriarchy has been worsening the current pandemic situation and forcing discriminatory sacrifices upon certain groups of people, she discusses, in her characteristically acute style, how we should respond to it not only with feminism, but also universal human rights and absolute equality.

For creative writing, we present new works by 12 poets of different generations and with diverse characteristics. Poems with distinct personalities seem to announce the arrival of a new season. For fiction, we present short stories by Gong Sun-ok, Lim Hyeon, Choe Min-gyeong, and Kim Yuna. They contain various forms of life that suggest a tough vitality, despite helpless appearances, in the face of a reality becoming more heartless and uncertain by the day.

 

For “Focus on Author,” Kim Hyeongsoo met with Mr. Hwang Sok-yong, who recently published Three Generations of Railway Workers in a Family, a masterful novel and the fruit of years of hard work. As Mr. Kim’s well-informed interpretations of Mr. Hwang’s work are happily woven together with Mr. Hwang’s remarks, supported by years of experience and knowledge, as well as his keen sensibilities for the new, we are led to a comprehension of the significance of his novel, not only in the history of Korean literature but also in Korean history.

While focusing on Baek Mu-san’s poetry, Kim Young-hee’s literary criticism examines how “the reality ‘captured by the time of the capital’” is being repeated, and discusses traces of “observations” and “sensibilities of life” left in his poems by his efforts to talk about a different future . At the same time, Kim senses the possibilities of new labor poetry in the works of several young poets.

In “Literary Focus,” the critics Oh Youn-kyung and Jeon Ki-hwa and the poet An Heon-mi discuss six books of fiction and poetry. Their diverse perspectives create an engaging mixture of arguments about noteworthy new books of this season.

Jung Ji-Chang’s essay commemorates the late Mr. Kim Jong Cheol, who left us recently and suddenly. Calmly and vividly taking us into the life of the late Mr. Kim as his close friend, he offers a precious story that shows us how Mr. Kim’s writings are connected to his life of dedication to our society, exemplified in the publication of the Green Review.

“Book Reviews” is another window joining Changbi with the world. It includes 10 book reviews addressing various topics, including modern history, inter-Korean relationships, human rights, and science topics.

Poet Ju Min-hyeon and novelist Kim Yu-dam were selected as winners of the 38th Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. Through the 2020 Changbi Award for Young Writers, we meet poet Yoo Hye Been and novelist Kim Yuna. We send them sincere congratulations and excited expectations. At the same time, we are publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature.

By the time when our readers receive this issue of Changbi, this year’s unusually prolonged rainy season should have ended. Although the abnormal has for so long become the norm, so that calling the weather these days abnormal is almost meaningless, we still sincerely hope that the weather this fall brings comfort and renewed encouragement to our readers. At the same time, not forgetting that we have a lot more to do than just wishing and hoping for comfort and encouragement, we promise to work hard to bring about improvement, together with all those who long for a better future.

 

Lee Nam Ju