The Korea Herald


Teacher-writer balances dual identities in 'The World to Protect'

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Dec. 2, 2023 - 16:01

    • Link copied

Moon Kyung-min speaks during a press conference held in Jung-gu, central Seoul, in October. (Dasan Books) Moon Kyung-min speaks during a press conference held in Jung-gu, central Seoul, in October. (Dasan Books)

“The World to Protect” is a poignant narrative of a Korean language teacher interwoven with the history of South Korea’s labor movement and pressing issues in public education, written by Moon Kyung-min, a 22-year veteran elementary school teacher.

"As a teacher and a novelist, this was a story I had with me for a long time. It was the one I could best tell,” said Moon at a recent press conference in Seoul. “The World to Protect” won the 13th Honbul Literary Award.

Currently a sixth-grade homeroom teacher and leading an anti-school violence team for five years, Moon added, “The profession is like its own world. For me, it's a balancing act between the world of a writer and the world of a teacher. They are both essential identities within me.”

"The World to Protect," set in one of his two worlds -- the teacher's world -- revolves around the death of Yoon-ok, a 60-year-old Korean language teacher at a middle school nearing retirement. The narrative delves into questions of disability, elder care and human redemption.

Facing the unexpected death of her father, being torn apart from a severely disabled younger sibling, and the betrayal of a trusted friend, Yoon-ok strives to uphold her dignity.

Moon described the protagonist as having “passion and wildness.”

“She faces challenges without yielding, and leaps over them with such passion and wildness. My attitude at school is quite similar, I think. I have lived and will continue to live as a teacher with that spirit."

"The World to Protect" by Moon Kyung-min (Dasan Books)

The novel also touches on the theme of the gradual decline of teachers’ rights and authority.

In July, before Moon’s win, a 23-year-old primary school teacher at Seoi Elementary School took her own life, allegedly suffering from bullying and malicious complaints from parents. Tens of thousands of teachers participated in rallies held nationwide on the following weekends in response to the tragedy.

Moon delivered a eulogy during a candlelight vigil, marking the 49th day of the teacher's passing.

He conveyed lingering heavy emotions on the matter.

"Seoi Elementary School is just a 10-minute drive from my workplace, so I couldn't remain unaffected. In the author's note, I also wrote about the 49th-day memorial and my emotions and reflections."

"Similar incidents have occurred before, and it's disheartening to witness an increase in the number of incidents in which human brutality is revealed. The world needs to regain its core values -- teachers need to guide students, and parents should responsibly nurture and guide their children at home as well.”

However, Moon clarified that he started writing the novel seven years ago, and that it did not reflect the series of recent events regarding Seoi Elementary School.

“While there is a part about education and teacher’s rights, I wanted to talk about ‘people’ more than anything else.”

The author expressed hope that the novel would resonate with teachers, above all.

"I love teaching. So being a writer familiar with this world, this was a story I had to write someday. Now holding the actual book in my hands, I hope that this story can also touch someone's heart. That alone would be a truly meaningful achievement."