[Editorial] To Light the Darkness Again / Paik Young-Gyung

The Quarterly Changbi 194, Winter 2021

 

We recently had an untimely first snow in Seoul, after experiencing one in Mt. Hallasan. The winter seems to have decided to come quickly, after the hasty finish to the fall foliage season. In the face of changing seasonal perceptions, some of us might be worrying about an ever-intensifying climate crisis and how to cope with it, while others pray that the “with corona” policy settles in so that this winter will not be as harsh as the last one for those still struggling with both epidemic prevention and their livelihoods. While we might have different priorities in the few remaining days of the year, most of us cannot help being reminded of the same season five years ago during this period leading up to next year’s presidential election, while we look at the evening streets already quite cold and dark. We remember how we spent the entire winter five years ago on the streets, occasionally taking care of other matters in between massive rallies held every weekend.

What was most wretched during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye regimes—when we experienced the Four-River Refurbishment Project and Sewol Ferry Disaster—was a fear that we were gradually being destroyed, together with the system being ruined. The system had broken down so thoroughly that people were justified in asking the rhetorical question: “Can we even call this a country?” and we feared that none of us might escape this destruction. It was a time when we could not find human decency, but only brawls to overturn the incense altars, even while Miryang residents took their lives in despair during their futile protests against the Tower-Line Project and workers continued to die after the Ssangyong Motor Company’s dismissal of them. As strike-breakers waged “binge-eating strikes” in front of family members of the dead who had staged hunger strikes as a last resort, and as rough insults were hurled endlessly at the victims and their families, we could not help worrying that our society might be utterly destroyed before the regime could change. It was a time of dishonor, frustration, and shame.

The Candlelight was an event that changed such desolation and despair overnight. Although it began with demands for the resignation of the regime, it included the lively calls for a new world, going beyond the simple negation of the current regime, as well as the kind of flexibility through passionate debates that transformed conflicts in yesterday’s rallies into new rules for the next day’s rallies. The arrogance of the police in the winter previous year, when they had aimed water cannons directly at farmers during rallies, receded with this general trend. Although there were debates whether or not we should insist on non-violence, it was a time full of confidence and expectations, when we trusted that our collective and peaceful efforts could inevitably bring about Park Geun-hye’s resignation and that the society was already undergoing change. The collective act of lighting candles in the darkness and sharing and confirming that light was that special.

How is our situation today, five years later? Although we can readily acknowledge the Candlelight’s contribution to the change in the current of the times, it is not easy to evoke the event today. We cannot help being bothered by the sense of distance we feel between what we envisioned and our current reality in many aspects of the new currents that emerged with the Candlelight. Although we can say that many problems and conflicts that emerged in various areas of our society after the Candlelight were not caused by it, but instead surfaced as a result, it is also true that these problems have led to despair rather than just disappointment among those concerned. Although during the last presidential election candidate Moon Jae-in tried to explain his hasty exit from audiences protesting the human rights of sexual minorities, nevertheless the Anti-Discrimination Law, which was first proposed during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, has yet to be enacted. Not only that, but the current government also made us doubt its will to enact this law by recently extending the deadline to 2024 for the National Assembly’s examination of the people’s petition demanding its legislation.

Further, the current government’s response to the climate crisis often appears too slow in the face of the situation’s urgency, or as if it is still taking a developmentalist approach. Watching an unending string of preventable industrial accidents, we cannot help wondering whose side this government is on fundamentally. However, we should also resist resorting to easy doubts, asking “Is this all we get from holding candles?”, even though we are disappointed at the quite natural fact that the changes after the Candlelight could not be achieved immediately. No matter how great the achievement of impeaching the president through legal procedures, it was only the beginning of the work of transforming the former society, of which we are also part, and this work was bound to be a lengthy, messy, and painful process.

Even during the winter five years ago, the Candlelight as an event changing the sensibilities of a society would not have happened if we had waited for the next election in order to judge the existing regime, or if we had pursued only clearly political solutions. Now is the time for us to remember how earnestly we lit the candles in the pitch darkness, how we tried to become part of a great change, by first moving ourselves in those night streets—even though we did not know what lay ahead.

 

Under the topic, “Literature, Politics, Democracy,” this issue’s feature introduces a wide-ranging discussion about the political nature of current Korean literature and that it should continue to pursue. Hwang Jung-a examines the politicalness currently in operation and manifested in the field of literature, while warning us against the possibility that the more natural become our demands for and practices of the political nature of literature, the rarer the exploration and questioning into its nature might be. Focusing on a recent novel by Han Kang, which deals with the serious topic of the traumatic legacies of the April 3 Incident, and a novel by Choi Eun-young that depicts intergenerational solidarity among women, Hwang meticulously examines how these novels are interconnected and conflict with the demands of political and moral correctness. Her argument persuades us through her sincere belief that literature should go further than sympathy for the marginalized to the common space in which literature touches on the dimension where it “shares their pain and healing.”

Understanding that the Candlelight and pandemic are events that led us to realize clearly our connectedness with other humans as well as non-human beings, Oh Youn-kyung argues that democracy in literature should be a movement that reveals the dense networks among all beings. She examines how some current practitioners of Korean poetry are carrying out this task and renewing the art with new ideas, doing so through poems by Jang Hye-ryung, Kim Sang-hyeok, Park Soran, Jeong Da-yeon, and An Hee-yeon. It acutely and actively captures literary practices of rearranging the political within the sensibility of connection, adopting the useful concept of Earth-dwellers.

Kang Kyung-seok pays attention to a series of currents around the literary self, from post-lyricist discourse dealing with the deconstruction of “I” to the latest attempts to find new subjects while expanding a focus on women, queer, animals, and machines. As a desire for the deconstruction of the self also encourages endless focusing on and summoning of the self, however, he proposes to break through this problem by examining its relationship with the conditions underlying its existence—that is, democracy and capitalism—rather than the self alone. He analytically examines how democracy and capitalism influence the self in literature and how this influence appears as both limits and possibilities for alternatives through the works of Lee Jangwook, Kim Choyeop, O Seon-yeong, and Jeong Seong-suk.

These days, when demands for the expansion of politicalness are lively not only in literature but also the arts in general, Lee Nara’s article is of interest, as it examines unusual attempts and explorations in films by women. Lee Nara throws out a question whether the gaze of contemplation and staring observed in a film of women’s growth might not simply repeat or intensify stereotypical concepts of women, children, and victims. Then, how can we achieve multi-level representations, bridging truth and lies and the possibility and impossibility of interpretation? She illuminates noteworthy attempts to do so through recent movies A Girl at My Door and Voice of Silence.

The third topic in the series of featured dialogues, in which we think hard about the tasks for the great transformation of Korean society ahead of the 2022 presidential election, is inequality. Although most citizens consider this a hot issue, their approaches and perspectives toward it vary—and the paths toward a solution are not easy. In the current issue’s dialogue, moderated by Lee Nam Ju, gender scholar Kim Sora, economist Ju Biung-Ghi, and labor columnist Chun Hyunwoo present their views of the present state of and problems with inequality, evaluating the current administration’s efforts and discussing various tasks for the next administration. As the solution to this problem requires an omni-directional approach, which includes not only the economy, but also gender, region, education, labor, and corruption, we hope that this dialogue offers an opportunity for a lively societal discussion of this important matter.

“Articles” discusses various other important topics. Literary critic Jung Ji-Chang’s article offers not only his reflections on the last issue’s special colloquy, “Seeking Donghak Again in Order To Ask Guidance in Our Way Forward,” but also his personal experiences of and perspectives on Donghak, to the study of which he has devoted himself for a long time. Calling the three participants in the colloquy—Kim Young-Oak, Park Maeng-soo, and Paik Nak-chung—the “Gaebyeok School” thinkers, he appreciates the significance of the colloquy for its discussions of the modern period and modernity, as well as the current of gaebyeok that has been continuing from Donghak to the Candlelight Revolution. Further, by introducing literary works to be discussed in the context of Donghak thought, he offers another impetus for the study of Donghak.

Media scholar Jung Junehee succinctly outlines the debates on the amended bill of the Press Arbitration Law and suggests their future directions. Examining how both sides, those in favor of and those opposed to the amendment, have become locked within the frame of punitive damages, he suggests that what’s necessary for true reform of the media is the long-term task of establishing “inclusive governance.”

International politics scholar Suh Jae-jung offers a useful framework of multilateral analyses concerning the Biden administrations’ foreign relations and national security strategies. The Biden administration’s “value diplomacy” is, in fact, a return to past US approaches, such as realistic internationalism and liberal institutionalism. Suh’s analysis offers worthwhile insights into these strategies, also related to the situation in the Korean peninsula, including the declaration for the end of the Korean War.

“On the Scene” introduces important articles related to both the climate crisis, which is becoming more urgent every day, and the overarching power of capitalism. Labor activist Lee Seungchul gives us concrete pictures of the difference between a green future that the government and corporations pursue and one envisioned by labor in today’s environment, when the entire society shares concerns about the growing necessity of responding to the climate crisis, such as decarbonization policies. While examining the danger of environment-friendly business strategies dependent on the market, in connection with examples in other countries, he convincingly argues that a “just transformation” should be a public one that can protect citizens’ basic rights of energy.

Political thinker Nancy Fraser emphasizes in an interview that we need to rethink the inseparable relationship between the economic system of a capitalist society and its essential conditions, such as the area of social reproduction, hitherto taken charge of mostly by women. In particular, concerned about the emergence of “cannibal capitalism,” in which the system invades and devours all areas of our lives, she argues that the left should embrace the overall populist political movement, which shares common direction with it while touching on various new issues raised by the populist movement.

The creative writing sections of this issue offer rich attractions. Together with new poems by 12 veteran and new poets, from Kim Yong Man to Cho Yongwoo, we introduce well-crafted and touching short stories by Kim Ae-ran, Lee Ju-ran, Lim Gukyeong, and Choi Jung-hwa. Choi Eunmi’s Face to Face ends its yearlong serialization, leaving behind strong impressions. We look forward to reading the remainder of the novel in the published book. Noting the specific nature of the poetic space established in recent poems by various writers, So Yu-jeong’s article of literary criticism illuminates the poems of Kim Yeon-duk, Kang Ji Yi, and Lee Soho. She examines the process in which the space inside the subject meets the community that is “us” in relation to the dynamic continuity between reality and literature.

For “Focus on Author,” Kim Yu-dam met fellow novelist Choi Jin Young, who has been offering various works through her consistently creative career. Kim’s sincere gazing on Choi’s writings, from its single gestures to the techniques and world of writing, based on her ongoing appreciation of them, is special and caring. For “Literary Focus,” poet Hwang InChan has again moderated a discussion of six noteworthy books of poetry and fiction of this season, doing so with the literary critic Jang Eun-young and novelist Choi Min-woo. Exchanging frank comments, they carefully evaluate the virtues and values specific to each work.

In “Book Reviews” we meet reviews of significant books about important topics, including ecology, labor, real estate, and academic factionalism. We thank all our reviewers for sharing insights from their hard labor.

Last, but not least, the 36th Manhae Prize in Literature was awarded to Kim Seung-hee’s book of poems True Love of Pickled Radish and Bacon, and the award’s special prize went to Kim Young-Oak’s recent book Dongkyung Daejeon. Also, the 23rd Baeksok Prize for Literature went to Ahn Sang-hak’s book of poetry The Remaining Days Are All Tomorrows. We congratulate all three winners and have published the judges’ detailed comments and the recipients’ remarks. While the judges were deliberating on the winners, we heard the sad news that renowned literary critic and member of the Manhae Prize in Literature steering committee Lee Sun-young passed away. We believe his shining critical thought, which emphasized practical criticism that is sensitive to history and society, will remain a legacy for contemporary and future scholars. We pray for the repose of his soul.

 

Wrapping up, we cannot help returning to the Candlelight, as it is an essential keyword for us all now in its fifth anniversary, and as we anticipate the new year, when important change has the possibility of happening in the Korean peninsula and South Korea. During the five years since the Candlelight, we have had many occasions for a range of different emotions: joy, sadness, and anger. And this experience will continue in our lives going forward. What’s important is to ask what small distances we have moved forward through Candlelight years, and to try not to lose sight of the directions they indicate. That power pushes our history forward. We hope this winter 2021 issue of Changbi is helpful in our readers’ struggles to achieve that.

 

 

Paik Young-Gyung