One year ago, I led a group of 30 women from 15 countries on a journey across the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) from North to South Korea.
On May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, we crossed the world’s most militarized border calling for the reunification of Korean families divided by conflict and a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Our delegation included two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, a retired U.S. army colonel, and America’s most revered feminist, Gloria Steinem.
Together, we shined a light on the urgent need for a peaceful solution to the Korean conflict that’s separated three generations of families and threatens nuclear war today.
While we received support from world leaders such as U.S. President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, others called us “naïve handmaidens” of the Kim Jong-Un regime and accused us of seeking to advance North Korea’s agenda. As South Korean women plan another peace walk this May along the DMZ’s southern border, detractors now allege that the idea came from the North Korean government.
In fact, the idea of the women’s peace walk emerged from a dream I had in 2009 after reading about the flooding of the Imjin River, which killed six South Koreans. To avert a catastrophe in North Korea, Pyongyang lifted the floodgates of the dam, but apparently didn’t communicate with Seoul, as the inter-Korean hotline had been shut down.
In 2013, my idea crystallized into action when five New Zealanders rode their motorbikes across the DMZ. If they could do it, international women peacemakers could certainly do it, too. And we could call for an end to the Korean War while we were at it.
With a colleague and my young daughter in tow, I traveled to Pyongyang in February 2014 to present my idea to a panel of skeptical North Korean officials. Whether out of shared belief in re-starting a long-stalled peace process or an undisclosed agenda of their own, they signed a memorandum agreeing, tentatively, to a women’s peace march across the DMZ. With assistance from former U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson, the UN Command Military Armistice Commission also agreed to cooperate once South Korea gave the green light, which finally arrived days before we boarded our planes to Beijing en route to North Korea.
Over the course of four days, we exchanged ideas with North Korean women leaders and marched with 7,000 North Korean women through the streets of Pyongyang and Kaesong.
As with any high-level foreign delegation in the country, our trip was highly planned and coordinated. What wasn’t scripted, however, was a spontaneous interview a North Korean journalist from Rodong Sinmun gave me as we toured Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. He wanted my opinion about the North Korean founder, so I gave an honest response referring to my late mother, who was born during the Japanese colonial period.
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Despite her sixth grade education and the overwhelming anti-North Korean propaganda she grew up with in Seoul, even she knew that Kim Il Sung was regarded as a guerrilla fighter who fought for Korea’s independence from Japanese rule. Unfortunately, the reporter interpreted this too liberally, claiming I had praised the North Korean leader. The South Korean media later parroted this as fact, which is ironic since they view any news from North Korean state media as propaganda intended for their domestic audience.
Sadly, the distortion continues. Because the Korean War has never formally ended, a deep ideological divide remains — not just across the DMZ, but also within South Korea, where those working for peace are often painted as North Korean sympathizers.
Although Korean, American, and Chinese military leaders agreed over 60 years ago to hammer out a binding peace accord within three months of signing the Armistice Agreement that temporarily halted the Korean War in 1953, somehow when women take to the streets calling for its fulfillment, we’re North Korean lackeys.
Women must be at the peacemaking table, not just because we make up half the world’s population, but also because our involvement leads to better outcomes.
New research from the Philippines and Colombia, on top of the experience from Liberia and Northern Ireland, shows that when women and men participate equally in the process, prospects for achieving a durable peace agreement are improved.
Women’s inclusion in peace building was enshrined into international law with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2001, which called on “all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.” Yet 15 years later, fewer than 10 percent of women are negotiators, and even fewer at the Korean peace table.
Ending the Korean War and finding a meaningful path to reunification won’t be achieved overnight, but a revitalized process towards peaceful reconciliation on the Korean peninsula can begin with a simple step: Women should have a seat at the peacemaking table.
Until then, we’ll continue to take our calls for a peaceful resolution to this decades-old conflict to public squares and streets around the world, including the DMZ.