Seoul. Thirty women peace activists who crossed the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea have sparked controversy and conversation.
An all-women group of peace activists crossed on Sunday from North to South Korea, through a veritable no-man’s land — and one of the most heavily militarized and dangerous borders in the world — with the hope of focusing world attention on the peninsula and pushing for peace and reconciliation.
“We have no illusions that we can end the Korean War overnight, but by taking this single step across the DMZ, we hope to spark a revitalized movement towards meaningful peaceful reconciliation,” said Korean-American activist Christine Ahn, the event’s principle organizer, in an interview with the Jakarta Globe.
May 24 marks the United Nations designated International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.
“It is an awesome thing to have our delegation of women, who are powerful in their own right yet outside the halls of power, to help revive this movement, to point out the human costs of the unresolved war and division, and call for another way than [what] is currently being pursued.”
The women also say they want to replace the cease fire agreement that terminated the Korean War in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty.
Although not unprecedented, any crossing of the DMZ is highly unusual, but the women’s action, dubbed the “Women Walk For Peace Across the DMZ,” received official permission first by North Korea and then, albeit belatedly, by Seoul and United Nations Command. That caused controversy, and attracted criticism from human rights activists and some Korea experts.
Complicating the event further, South Korea rejected the women’s request to cross at the symbolic Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, where the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed. So, they had to cross by bus — and not by foot as was their original plan — at South Korea’s Dorasan Rail Station, which is located near Kaesong in North Korea.
There are only three places to cross the inter-Korean border; one is at Panmunjom where the Joint Security Area is located, another is a rail and road connection built in 2007 on the Donghae Bukbu Line on the east coast of the peninsula and a third is a highway and rail line connecting the North’s Pyongbu Line to the South’s Gyeongui Line, where the women crossed. The Pyongbu-Gyeongui line links the Kaesong Industrial Region with South Korea.
“We are feeling very, very positive about what we accomplished which is a trip for peace, for reconciliation and for human rights and a trip which both governments agreed to,” Gloria Steinem said during a press conference at Dorasan Station in South Korea after passing through the DMZ. “We were able to be citizen diplomats.”
The 81-year-old feminist icon agreed to join at the invitation of Ahn. Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee have also joined the group. Maguire was recognized in 1976 for her work as co-founder of Women for Peace in Northern Ireland. Gbowee was instrumental in ending the second Liberian civil war and won the prize in 2011.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had intended to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an area north of the DMZ where South Korean businesses employ North Korean nationals, until Pyongyang abruptly cancelled the trip during Ban’s visit in Seoul and one day before he was to go to North Korea.
It would have been Ban’s first trip to North Korea as UN Secretary General and a first for any secretary general in 22 years. It could be seen as a setback for Ban if he does not visit the North before the end of his tenure as United Nations leader.
Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the women.
A slew of organizations in the United States and South Korea supported the peace action. The women also participated in a peace symposium in Seoul on Monday.
“This is not a North Korean-hatched initiative as the war-mongers like to spin, but the collective effort of hundreds of women on the Korean peninsula and around the world,” Ahn said during the interview. “We’ve made it patently clear that we are walking to end the Korean War with a peace treaty, to reunite families, and raise up women’s power in the peace building process. I’m not sure how that is delivering any side a victory; in fact, we’re saying, game over. This tragedy has gone on for far too long; our leaders must find a new path forward.”
But from the start, the peace march has attracted criticism by some North Korea watchers and human rights activists, some calling the event a “human rights theater” and the women, by possibly handing Pyongyang a tool for propaganda, as “naive.”
“But any sanctioning of a peace march by North Korea can be nothing but human rights theater intended to cover up its death camps and crimes against humanity,” said Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu, in a co-authored opinion piece published by the Washington Post in April.
Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Even the timing of the peace action was called into question. Park Sokeel, director of Research & Strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a South Korea-based nonprofit, said: “The timing is unfortunately politicized because it coincides with the May 24 sanctions, which is one of the most contentious issues in inter-Korean relations at the moment.”
Ahn has been signaled out in particular. Joshua Stanton, who is well known among North Korea watchers, called her “pro-North Korea” and implied in an April post on the blog One Free Korea that she could also be a “communist,” allegations she refutes.
“It’s a relic of McCarthyism from the Cold War, and it’s intended to silence and freeze engagement by those aimed at warming and improving relations. As many of our delegates have made clear, without dialogue, you have nothing. No improvement in human rights or denuclearization,” Ahn said. “Also it seems those who want to maintain the status quo on the peninsula — the intense militarization of Korea, separation of families, [and] repression on both sides of the DMZ — are the first ones to allege that anyone who engages with North Korea is an apologist.”
Other Korea experts were more detached in their view of the women’s peace march.
“I think critics of the event are ascribing more significance to it than it warrants objectively,” said David Straub, associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and who served in South Korea as a US diplomat.
The peace march would probably not have much impact one way or the other, he added.
Still, other Korea experts said they supported the march.
“Given that there is no dialogue going on at the governmental level, why not?” said Peter Beck, long-time Korea watcher and former country representative in South Korea for the Asia Foundation.
“If anything this march will undermine the narrative in North Korea that the United States is this evil imperialist regime that wants to bring ill and bring down North Korea. This march can show the North Korean people that we are a diverse country and that there are those actively trying to promote peace and reconciliation,” he said.