Gloria Steinem and Other Women Activists Cross the North-South Korean Border for Peace

Inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

This past Sunday, on International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, a group of thirty women activists from fifteen different countries, WomenCrossDMZ, crossed the demilitarized zone (DMZ) starting from Pyongyang, North Korea into South Korea to call attention to the still-in-place Korean War Armistice Agreement that has put a pause on the Korean War for the past sixty years without formally ending it.

Because the two countries are technically still at war without a peace treaty, there have been occasional skirmishes and displays of brinkmanship at the border, which is patrolled by North Korean and South Korean soldiers. It all came to a head last year, when North Korea began testing nuclear missiles. Because of the conflict, family members separated by the border still cannot gain access to reunite.

They crossed the border by bus on Sunday into South Korea at Kaesong, just a few miles from Panmunjom, the location where the Korean War truce was first signed in July 1953, where they had originally hoped to cross on foot. They undertook this trip after spending some days in Pyongyang, where they held an International Women’s Peace Symposium with North Korean women on May 21, and held a second symposium in South Korea after their arrival. Famed feminist activist Gloria Steinem, the American Humanist Association’s 2012 Humanist of the Year, said in a press release for WomenCrossDMZ of the symposiums, “We have accomplished our first goal of meeting woman-to-woman in order to break through barriers to make human connections…We achieved what we set out to do, which is to engage in citizen diplomacy.”

The activists want their action of crossing the border to spur real conversations between the North and the South on ending the conflict with a peace treaty. Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink and one of the participants, explained in the Huffington Post how women have been best suited for this role, referencing several of the fellow participants (Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace prize winner for her involvement in Northern Ireland peace movement; Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace prize winner for leading the women’s peace movement during the Second Liberian Civil War): “Women have historically been influential in ending seemingly intractable conflicts. Women were key to facilitating the peace process after decades of fighting in Northern Ireland. Women brought the warring parties of the Second Liberian Civil War to the negotiating table, ending years of bloodshed in Liberia. And now, women are putting a global spotlight on Korea.”

Another participant, Gwyn Kirk, a founding member of Women for Genuine Security, cited UN Security Resolution 1325 which points out “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction…”

However, the women were not impervious to criticism—in addition to supporters, they were met in South Korea with protesters who believe they should not be dialoguing with North Korea at all because of North Korea’s shoddy human rights record.

Christine Ahn, an organizer for WomenCrossDMZ, was attacked numerous times by conservatives and other activists alike for being sympathetic to North Korea and for having been quoted in the Rodong Shimmum, the North Korean Workers Party’s newspaper as praising Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather. (She denies this quote and has demanded a retraction.)

As reported by CNN, Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition said, “It is absolutely outrageous that they completely ignore the suffering of the North Korean people, especially North Korean women. If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ.”

Mairead Maguire defended their border crossing and cooperation with North Korea: “We are pro-peace for North Korea, pro-peace for South Korea…You can get to human rights when you have a normal situation and not a country at war.” Ahn also rebutted, “You’re not going to see any improvement in North Korean human rights if you continue to isolate them or not engage or have dialogue.”

Another reaction harbors misgivings about the true intentions of North Korea. Elise Hu, NPR’s Seoul correspondent, noted that some protesters and human rights groups say “that North Korea doesn’t do anything unless it benefits the North Korean regime. So they think the women are being used as pawns for the government.”

Regardless of North Korea’s intentions or one’s thoughts about cooperation or dialogue as synonymous with tolerance for lack of human rights, the event did manage to bring some attention to a seemingly inconsequential (to those living thousands of miles away) political standoff that has affected Korean families and lives for over sixty years. Hopefully, additional action will follow.

As Benjamin implored in her article:

In reference to Cuba, President Obama said, “If you’ve done the same thing for fifty years and nothing has changed, you should try something different.” The same is true with North Korea. The policy of isolation, condemnation and lack of contact between ordinary citizens has certainly not helped to open the reclusive regime or bring peace to the peninsula.

…This brave band of women is forging a path we hope others will follow. If President Obama would add Korea to his administration’s ongoing initiatives on Iran and Cuba, this axis of diplomacy could become his most lasting legacy.

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