[Editorial] To Become the Sovereigns of a Country / Lee Nam Ju

The Quarterly Changbi 195, Spring 2022

 

The most important significance of the Candlelight protest five years ago was our confirmation of the truth that ordinary people can be the sovereigns of a country. Everywhere in public squares at that time, we the citizens could feel liberated because our reality corresponded to our words. And then an event that could have been just an instant of inspiration continued and was connected to the impeachment of a sitting president and the birth of a new government. At the same time, a journey began: to embody the truth disclosed during that event in our reality, that is, the Candlelight Revolution. This revolution is an ongoing one, focusing on what will be achieved rather than what has been achieved—and it should be led by the “sovereigns” of our country.
If that is so, then the lack of mentioning the Candlelight in the flood of words during the current presidential election process is a serious problem. We cannot help asking: Where have all those people who held the candlelight gone? They haven’t gone anywhere faraway or disappeared. After leaving the squares, they have been leading their lives in their own places. Although they are not participating in all the decision-making processes about national affairs, they have become different agents from those before the Candlelight protest—and this fact represents the most important argument for the continuation of the Candlelight Revolution.
Without the premise of the emergence of such different agents, it is hard to explain the changes currently underway in our society. Above all, the opposition party’s presidential candidate not only has had no career related to the party he’s representing now, but also played a decisive role in destroying the party’s predecessor. This is an unprecedented event, even in the tumultuous history of Korean political parties. It shows the resoluteness of the forces resisting the ongoing Candlelight Revolution: there is nothing they will not mobilize to maintain their vested interests. It also means that the Candlelight Revolution really drove the forces with vested interests into such a desperate corner. They must indeed be feeling the change brought about by the ongoing revolution more acutely than anyone else.
It is necessary to understand criticisms against the current government in a similar context. Compared to other countries during this period, there is no reason to evaluate the current Korean government more negatively. Not only has the current Korean administration competently managed crises—such as military tension on the Korean peninsula, confrontation between North Korea and the U.S., and the Covid 19 pandemic—but it has also contributed significantly to the currently heightened international status of Korea. Nevertheless, criticism against the government is strong among not only political opposition forces but also participants in the Candlelight protest. In the latter case, they have had high expectations about the government, which proclaimed itself to be the “Candlelight government,” and therefore they have reason to criticize it for falling short of expectations. Nevertheless, the attitudes of some critics are baffling, as they denounce all the achievements of the Candlelight Revolution or look cynically at the current election.
The new sovereigns of our country should consider even the limitations of the Candlelight as their responsibility and try to overcome them. Although we don’t see the Candlelight in the current public discourse, that doesn’t mean those who held the candlelight have also disappeared. In fact, their will to be sovereigns is still strong. The unusually high approval ratings for the current president—the highest among all Korean presidents during a lame-duck period—are not entirely because people like him. Whether people use the term Candlelight Revolution or not, the high approval ratings are an indirect expression of people’s will that the change that began with the Candlelight protest should not stop—even if the current government fell somewhat short of the tasks entrusted to them. Meanwhile, this collective will has appeared as the focus on agendas such as gender equality, responses to climate crisis, and the overcoming of inequality. These agendas, which didn’t emerge until the Candlelight protest, became essential—ones that our society should solve.
It is true that no active discussion to channel such a will is occurring in the current election, though. The broad offense by the media, who appear to be openly supporting a specific candidate, also contributes to the weakening of the field of public discourse. The ruling party’s candidate’s effort to present the direction we should take in light of the Candlelight spirit is also not enough. However, a bigger problem is some people’s view that the upcoming choice has nothing to do with our way forward, a sort of false balance. This is not the attitude of a true sovereign—but closer to that of a consumer who chooses a product they like (Cf. Paik Nak-chung, The Double Project of Modernity and the Korean-Peninsula-Style Country-Making, 16). This kind of attitude is not helpful in creating the force to change our reality.
The sovereigns of a country should also create an environment where they can assume their proper roles. This is also why a reform of the current structure supporting vested interests and the establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula are necessary and important. Although an election inevitably presents us with limited choices, it is up to us to decide what choice is most helpful in our way forward. And the choice is not too hard if we mobilize only a little commonsense. It goes without saying that the candidate we choose may not fulfill our expectations; it could be a matter of his subjective will, but it might have more to do with our society’s capabilities, which haven’t reached the level needed to create change worthy of the term “grand transformation.” However, the closer our choice is to the side of helping the sovereigns of the country play their proper roles, the more we can reduce the difference between our expectations and reality. After the Candlelight protests, we are closer on that road than at any other time. We are now at the point where we should make our way through this time of grand transformation with the attitude that expresses the saying: “a step forward at the last extremities.”

 

To become a sovereign of a country does not mean wielding the power to rule over others, but rather to become an agent for changing the world. There are already many urgent tasks in front of us—tasks that we cannot entrust only to politicians and that can be easily neglected in the process of a presidential election. This issue’s feature is composed of writings that examine recent movements demanding fundamental transformation in our lives and that explore ways to form new agents. Paik Young-Gyung argues that advocacy for de-growth can be more actively connected with feminism and post-colonialism when we consider them from the perspective of the transformation of our society, focusing on care. According to her, our plan for a new system of society can also be better embodied by doing so. In addition, she requests that we pay attention to the possibility of the frontline community—both as the greatest victims of the current system and climate crisis and as agents who can actively take charge of the task of overcoming the current system.
Also, Lee Hyun-jung presents us with the overcoming of the “wasted intentions” in the actualization of the important task of climate justice that originates from the gap between the task given to humanity and individual subjects’ practices, as well as exploring practical strategies to take on such a task from various perspectives. Han Young-in reads Squid Game and Hellbound, two recent Korean dramas that have garnered worldwide attention, as texts critiquing contemporary civilization. While examining the limitations and potentials of their contents from the perspective of presenting new agents, and the direction for their work, he explores ways to open other civilizational possibilities, based on the accumulation and materialization of cooperative and collaborative creative endeavors in Korean society.
This issue’s Dialogue, dealing with “National Defense Reform and the Grand Transformation of Korean Society,” is the last in the series in which we have thought about the tasks for the grand transformation of Korean society ahead of the 2022 presidential election. After dealing with such pressing issues as balanced regional development, the Candlelight Revolution, and societal inequalities, through the last issue, the current issue’s dialogue, moderated by Lee Nam Ju and enjoined by Shin Sang-cheol, Lee Tae-ho, and Choo Jihyun, examines how the sanctified areas of national defense and security are related to progress in our society’s democracy. Their discussions about the concept of security, changes in the national defense model, and the truth of the ROKS Cheonan Sinking convincingly show how the problem of national defense is profoundly related to the grand transformation of our society.
“Articles” also remind us of the need for the radical re-thinking of a grand transformation. An Sae-myung continues the discussion of the “Special Colloquy: Seeking Donghak Again in Order To Ask Guidance in Our Way Forward,” published in the 2021 fall issue. Beginning with the different opinions expressed by Paik Nak-chung and Kim Young-Oak about the place that Su’un and Sotaesan take in the history of Korean thought, An Sae-myung goes into an in-depth discussion of Sotaesan’s philosophical achievement.
A recent article by Slavoj Žižek, whose other work we published more than a decade ago, suggests that, in our response to climate crisis, humanity needs to find balance between freedom and powerful international cooperation that could go against spontaneous historical and natural tendencies. This article emphasizing the validity of socialist thinking in this exploration is well worth considering, together with articles in the “Feature” of this issue.
In “On the Scene,” Koh Sungman discusses the significance and limitations of the newly amended special law about the truth revelation of the Jeju April 3 Incident and the recovery of its victims’ honor. His argument about why this law should not be considered an easy model or standard for the solution for other historical problems expands the scope of our understanding about how to approach arguments about historical events.
For “Focus on Author,” literary critic Kim Su-i met poet Kim Seung-hee. Beginning with A Sincere Person Like Pickled Radish and Bacon, the book of selected poems by Kim Seung-hee, which won the latest Manhae Prize in Literature, they present a rich conversation that encompasses Kim Seung-hee’s outstanding 50-year poetic career. Reflections and discussions about women, self, and truth offer a guide to a more profound understanding of Kim Seung-hee’s poetic world.
Two criticism articles deal with important recent concerns in literature. In the first, Jung Hong-su enriches our understanding of the relationship between literature and politics, the previous issue’s feature topic, through a discussion of literary aspects of tension and mutual tolerance between the individual and otherness, differences and solidarity, and the private and public realms. The second article discerns various attitudes of young people “these days” toward work and love in short stories dealing with their loves and lives—ones that cannot be reduced to generational stereotypes. In it, Jeon Seungmin carefully shows how these stories reveal the existence of positive attitudes toward life and the power in an acceptance of reality in individual lives.
We think the creative writing sections in this issue will be a source of great pleasure. Fiction by Ki Jun Young, Kim Mella, Jeong Ji A, and Hwang Hyunjin and poems by 12 outstanding poets will satisfy our readers’ expectations. We also direct your attention to a novel by Lee Ju-Hye, begun here and to continue for a year.
Moderated by novelist Jeon Sungtae, Literary Focus was carried out with critic Kim Juseon and Korean teacher Jo Kyung-seon in a neighborhood bookstore in Suncheon, Jeollanamdo, called “Seoseongida (“Hanging Out”).” Held in a region far outside of the greater Seoul area, their critique and discussion of noteworthy poems and fictional works of this season will bring new sensibilities to our readers.
Attempts to heighten our sensibilities of “the local” and to rediscover ourselves through this process continues in Essays. From this issue on, we plan to serialize essays under the theme of “the place I live,” beginning this serialization with agricultural sociologist Jeong Eun-jeong’s piece. Jeong measuredly and honestly tells us her life’s journey through the changes in her hometown, remembered in the Wonjin Rayon Factory CS2 Poisoning Incident. And Park Seok-moo, a humanities scholar specializing in the classics, shows us the life of the late novelist Song Ki-suk as an upright person of our time through the “Our Educational Indices” Declaration Incident during the Yusin dictatorship era. We learn what resolutions and what people contributed to the achievements in democracy we currently enjoy.
We hope that Book Reviews not only plays the role of discussing the achievements of books, but also becomes a window for our readers to see the currents of our society and the world. Here, we can encounter new thinking, even in the short reviews. We also introduce the works that won the 20th Daesan Literary Awards for College Students: five poems, a short story, play, and literary criticism. As a result, this issue became a bit larger than usual, adding to its other offerings the pleasure of encountering the impressive talents of newcomers.
Some changes have occurred in our editorial board: Han Ki-wook, editor-in-chief since 2016, is now an editorial advisor, and Lee Nam Ju has taken his place as editor-in-chief. Hwang Jung-a and Baik Ji-yeon have agreed to serve as deputy editors-in-chief. English literature scholar Park Yeo Sun, history of Korean thought scholar Baek Min Jung, and literary critic Oh Youn-kyung have newly joined the editorial board, and will imbue it with new energy. We thank former editor-in-chief Han Ki-wook for his hard work during his six-year tenure, and promise our readers that the new editorial board will continue to practice the Changbi spirit of “Staying Constant, But Always Renewing.”

 

 

Lee Nam Ju