[Editorial] A Country Where All Children Can Thrive

The Quarterly Changbi 193, Autumn 2021

 

Eun Yoo’s book Children Who Exist But Don’t: Children of Undocumented Immigrants in South Korea (Changbi, 2021) relates detailed stories of children whose parents are undocumented immigrants—children living as invisible people in South Korea because they do not exist in documents, although of course they do in real life. The number of undocumented immigrants in Korea is estimated to be 200,000-300,000, with children making up another 20,000. Children living with their undocumented parents in Korea are granted the right to an education until high school, thanks to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; but they can be deported at any time once they turn 18. The oft-used term “illegal alien” both vividly and linguistically visualizes the social discrimination they have to endure. To the families of undocumented migrant workers, the state represents a “planet they cannot reach (23),” which they hover around “like ghosts.” According to Inhwa, a Mongolian woman who has been living in Korea with her son for 25 years as an undocumented immigrant life has become “neither living nor not living (196).”

The book’s calm recording of this wretched reality is deeply moving—while it also reveals how strong the utterances about this experience of the discriminated and marginalized can become when united with the power of fellow citizens. If there is a teacher who goes out to look for a student who is absent from school abruptly and without notice, or if some students act together: asking why their friend has left school, then the voices of children who try to avoid discrimination and suffering can reach far and wide.

The stories of Pebeo and Min-hyeok vividly illustrate how we can change the current irrational system through solidarity and joint efforts. Arrested after his parents lost their legal status, Pebeo could acquire legal status as a result of a petition by 1,650 people. Min-hyeok’s refugee status was recognized after three years of support by his friends, who waged a picketing and on-line petition campaign at the Blue House. All the interviewees in Eun’s book express their strong wish that a system offering legal status to children of long-term undocumented immigrants be put in place at the state level.

As the stories of undocumented immigrants’ children reveal, their situation is urgent, yet laws and institutions that could change it move extremely slowly. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice announced a measure offering opportunities for undocumented migrant children who have been living in Korea for more than 15 years to have their legal status evaluated; but the number of children who could benefit from this measure is extremely small. Also, a more fundamental problem remains unresolved, even if some children are allowed to live legally in Korea temporarily: their parents should also be guaranteed an environment in which they can live safely and humanely with their children, in the country where they make a living, pay taxes, and spend money.

As important as our actions of solidarity with those who experience discrimination, so that their voices become a movement that can change institutions, there is also the act of seeing the essential connection their voices have with various aspects of our own lives and to think of them as part of our general strivings. What’s hidden within the lives of minorities who are discriminated against in a society is the most important problem a society faces. As many people have already pointed out, discrimination against and exploitation of migrant workers originate from the exploitative structure of a capitalist system, which makes the introduction of migrant workers into workplaces avoided by domestic workers inevitable. The marginalized status of individual migrants should be thought through as a part of our society’s common problems, even if just to address the simple, commonsensical question: “Isn’t the number of migrant workers increasing because they are needed in the Korean economy (150-51)?”

In this sense, the Anti-Discrimination Law under consideration and the amendment to the Serious Accidents Punishment Act enforcement ordinance that is being debated in the public space are current issues—essential to us all rather than a matter of legislation specific to minorities. The Anti-Discrimination Law, repeatedly pending and discarded since its proposal in 2007 by the Ministry of Justice, recently received support from a qualifying 100,000 citizens in the online petition site for legislation in the National Assembly. It is urgent to amend the Serious Accidents Punishment Act, which ignores the current reality, in which 30% of deaths from industrial accidents occur in workplaces with fewer than five employees.

The imagination for transformation that Candlelight citizens had lit went from revealing voices of the discriminated and marginalized to the confirmation that these voices are closely related to the universal desires of our lives. Witnessing various pledges by presidential candidates that have begun to pour forth ahead of the presidential election next year, we should remember to engage in a productive discussion about the shape of a country in which we can all manage happy and safe lives. Clearly, our ongoing political reality is not one that can be easily handled. By continuing to replicate sensationalist political issues using such stereotypical frames as the generation gap and gender conflict, and even the argument for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, reactionary political forces intentionally ignore the abovementioned practical tasks for the transformation of our society. Also, the obsolete political grammar dependent on the easy framework of identity politics, under the pretext of fairness, is not helpful either in our current reality. We can begin the road of creating better institutions and a better world only when we claim ownership in our society as its citizens, beyond cynicism and mistrust, and thus examine extremely carefully all types of pledges for the next government made by various presidential candidates.

The kind of life in which we can work safely in the workplace, be paid in proportion to our labor, go to hospitals when sick, rest when tired, and live together with our loved ones is a life we all want—rather than a privilege a handful of “special” people are entitled to. We all need a country where we can meet friends, go to school, be recognized as ourselves, and dream for a better future. To build a country where children can thrive is a task of our time, which we can no longer delay.

 

In celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Candlelight movement, we planned this issue’s feature to evaluate changes brought on by that revolution—and to explore the way forward. Lee Nam Ju moderated a conversation with Park Jung-eun, Lee Jung-chul, and Hwang Gyu-gwan, beginning with an examination of the achievements of the current government and its limitations. Their consideration of and discussion about how we should map out our reform tasks in relation to the issues of the inter-Korean relationship, democracy and inequality, the climate crisis, and labor and basic income are of vital importance to us nowadays. We expect that this conversation will remind us again of the fundamental dynamic underlying the Candlelight, ahead of the 2022 presidential election, which is potentially a momentous event to push the Candlelight Revolution forward—and to push us in our utmost practical efforts, wherever we stand.

Noticing the prominence of the roles that the concepts of fairness, justice, and equality have played in our society’s political and social dynamic since the Candlelight, Shin Jin-Wook empirically analyzes the contexts in which these concepts have been used. Pointing out that the concepts of fairness and justice have been tainted and distorted in the contexts of a conservative discourse strategy, by groups with vested interests, a belief by neoliberal agents in a merit system, and our society’s structural inequalities, he argues that we need to redefine fairness in terms of greater justice. The article strenuously urges us to change our lives and relationships through active reflection on universal values, such as equality, dignity, human rights, and solidarity.

Based on his experience on the ground, Sung Jaeho offers us a detailed examination of efforts toward media reform–which have undergone many frustrations and predicaments since the Candlelight. Keeping a close eye on the limitations of the current government’s media reform measures, Sung guides us through the serious problem that public broadcasting is subordinated and subsumed by internet enterprises. He emphasizes that a fundamental paradigm shift is necessary for serious media reform, and a systemic change should be actively explored that reflects civic participation and decision-making.

In this issue, we’re particularly excited to present an unconventional and unprecedented colloquy among three great scholars of our time: Kim Young-Oak, Park Maeng-soo, and Paik Nak-chung, in which they re-evaluate Donghak thought from today’s perspective. In celebration of the publication of Dongkyung Daejeon (Tongnamu, 2021), a book shedding entirely new light to the study of Donghak thought, they examine from various angles ideological legacies that Donghak had to confront and its contemporary significance. Based on a sophisticated discussion of how to understand modernity, this feast of profound and rich dialogues examines the key concept gaebyeok (“Great Opening of the Later Heaven”), while crisscrossing ideologies and other history of the world, from ancient times to today, connecting Eastern and Western learning, Donghak and Won Buddhism, as well as Donghak and the Candlelight Revolution.

Their discussions powerfully expand our thought horizons through their argument that the groundbreaking aspect of Donghak—engaging in fierce confrontation with Catholicism and Western civilization, thinking deeply on the shape of horizontal democracy, and spearheading the liberation of people—formed the foundation for the ongoing Candlelight Revolution in our time. We believe that their spirited and practical discussion, which refutes West-oriented, highbrow academic discussions in one stroke, will offer abundant satisfaction to our readers, together with an intellectually rewarding experience. We hope that the significant contribution of Donghak thought to world history will inspire many people with original inspiration and lead to rich discussions and debates, as the three participants intend.

“On the Scene” deals with the Sinking of ROKS Cheonan Incident, recently re-emerged as a social issue, paying attention to the difficult path that searching for its truth has taken. Examining the division system that overshadows both this incident and the Sinking of MV Sewol Incident, and the violent nature of a security state, while carefully considering various issues about this incident, Lee Tae-ho remembers the hard work by many people who have not avoided struggles to find the truth. He urges us to open a safe and free space for public discussion, where the pain of the victims is healed and scientific research into and rational explanation can prevail.

With the discussion around animal rights as a backdrop, for which legislation was recently pursued, Nam Sang-wook’s essay examines the relationship between humans and animals during our era of pandemic. Relying abundantly on literature about animal rights and through critical reflections on the boundaries between humans and animals, he delicately gauges political activities for animal and plant species as they confront newly disastrous situations.

The Articles section attempts a careful reading and in-depth critical illumination of the latest in literary works that both fascinate and move readers with their extraordinary viewpoints. Han Ki-wook engages in a measured and concise critique of Shin Kyung-sook’s recent novel I Went To My Father. The article is a close reading of the process in which a daughter narrates the life of a father who lived through the turbulent period of modern Korea as a unique individual and head of household in a traditional rural community. We are impressed with the way Han perceptively reads how realistic narratives acquire aesthetic present-ness, together with affective scenes, and evaluates its literary achievement in a balanced way, while also paying attention to the creative method characteristic of Shin of using a narrative of memory. At the same time, also noteworthy is the way Han evokes in the novel various contexts related to issues of our times, including elderly life and care, the relationship between humans and animals, and the climate crisis.

Using the discovery of a poetic subject that truthfully communicates with other people’s feelings as a key theme, Park Soran freely and dynamically interprets poems of Lee Yeon-ju, Yoo Byung-Lock, Chae Gil-woo, Kim Eun-ji, and Kang Sungeun. Meticulously summoning poetic scenes imbued with the imagination of sympathy and communication, across the border between I and you, Park inspires us to think about the precious role poetry plays in our everyday lives.

Kim Juwon, the winner of the 2021 Changbi Award for Young Writers in the criticism category, carefully analyzes poetic imagination that invents a new subjectivity by illuminating various “Others” and by detecting sensuous occurrences in Shin Hae-wook’s poetry. It is a highly insightful article by a dedicated newcomer, who captures the analytical mind of a poet critically questioning humanistic thinking and taking an interest in the ontology of openness.

For creative writing, we include the unique voices of 12 poets, from veteran Kang Unkyo to the winner of the 2021 Changbi Award for Young Writers in the poetry category, Nam HyunJi. Also, Choi Eunmi’s novel has its third installment in this issue, and newly written, engaging short stories by Kang Hwa-gil, Kim Ryeo-ryeong, and Son Bo-mi offer unusual insights; while a short story by Sung Hyeryoung, winner of the 2021 Changbi Award for Young Writers in the fiction category, also stands out.

For “Focus on Author,” poet Shin Cheolgyu met fellow poet Lee Moon-jae, who recently published the collection The Width of Being Alone. As he carefully examines the poetic world of Mr. Lee, who has continued to engage in ecological discourse and to reflect on human civilization, he elucidates it for us through a keenly critical perspective.

In “Literary Focus,” poet Hwang InChan, novelist Jeong Ji A, and literary critic Park Dong-uk selected and discussed noteworthy books of this season. Their honest comments and reflections on novels by Choi Eunmi, Sohn Won-pyung, and Im Gook-young, as well as books of selected poems by Go Young-seo, Hwang Sunghee, and Choe Ji-eun, are highly insightful. In “Book Reviews” we have reviews of significant books worthy of our readers’ attention.

Poet Lee Jeong Hoon, novelist Park Sang-young, and literary critic Jang Eun-young were selected as winners of the 39th Shin Dong-yup Prizes in Literature. We congratulate them sincerely and anticipate their continuing devotion to their endeavor. We also express our high hopes for the new writers whom we meet through the 2021 Changbi Award for Young Writers. At the same time, we are publishing the shortlist for this year’s Manhae Prize in Literature. We urge our readers’ continuing interest, as we’ll publish winners in the winter issue.

Last but not the least, since the last issue, we have been printing Quarterly Changbi using an environmentally friendly paper stock approved by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). We hope that such everyday practices for the preservation of our environment penetrate many people’s lives.

We deeply thank all the writers who contributed to this issue, for which they worked hard and braced a hot summer. Promising that we will do our best to continue to meet our readers’ expectations, we hope for your enduring support and rigorous advice.

 

 

Baik Ji-yeon