I was part of a recent international women’s walk for peace—not so unusual in itself except this time the context was Korea. The plan was to walk across the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. For 70 years this has been a heavily mined and guarded no-man’s land (250 km long, 4 km wide) close to the 38th parallel.
The Korean War, 1950-1953, ended on 27 July 1953—not with unification but with a cease-fire drawn up by China, the two Koreas, and the USA. And there it remains —an armistice but not an elaborated peace treaty.
Cora Weiss invited me in March to participate in the women’s walk from North to South across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) for peace and reunification. Since 1987, I have led study/consultation tours to the UN for Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) and have often worked with Cora, a prominent international disarmament colleague with roots in the similar Women Strike for Peace, founded in the USA a year after VOW. “We want a Canadian to be part of this historic women’s initiative, and we can trust you,” she said.
I jumped at the opportunity, which Canadian MP Libby Davies had declined. Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), which legally promotes women’s inclusion in all peacebuilding, was not far from my mind.
I was added to the mix of 29 feminist peace women from 15 countries, seven of us over 70, the youngest just 23.Our team included well-known Nobel Laureates Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland) and Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), as well as pioneering American feminist and author Gloria Steinem. These three deservedly attracted much media attention. Perhaps Gloria’s striking height added to their draw. As a peacewoman accustomed to press disinterest, I was greatly surprised by the international TV interest which kept up wherever we went. (To sample the “Women Cross the DMZ” podcasts on YouTube, just type in this topic.)
My roommates, Meri Joyce, of Australia, now living in Japan as Peaceboat staff and advocate/trainer of citizen diplomacy, and Netsai Mushonga of Zimbabwe, an international trainer in nonviolent conflict resolution, illustrate some of the group’s array of peacebuilding skills. There were human rights leaders from Guam, the Philippines, Okinawa, mainland Japan, Mexico, the bold CODEPINK co-founders, historians, academics, a Korean-American inter-faith professor, a Nordic Red Cross worker with the unusual experience of working for three years in North Korea, and a retired ex-military USA diplomat. Just meeting these wonderful women, some coming at personal risk, was a highlight.
The idea of this walk for peace and reunification came from a decade-old vivid night dream of writer and principal organizer, Korean-American Christine Ahn. Her dream, retold during the trip, was of women’s key help in a devastating Korean situation. The lingering state of war on the peninsula merged with her vision of the potential for women to effect change.
The first civilian allowed to step across the DMZ from south to north was the billionaire founder of Hyundai in 1998. Born in the north, he was one of many Koreans trapped in the south with the policy of division. Since then, some family visits have been allowed but about 90,000 people still wait for their chance. Officially, no North-South contact is yet allowed. Could our anticipated interpersonal women’s dialogue be a lubricant for any policy softening? There was no harm in trying.
News that a few New Zealanders on motorbikes had recently crossed the DMZ spurred Christine to explore the possibility. She sought permission from each government and the UN head of command, located at Panmunjom in the DMZ. NGOs expectantly raised funds and contacted women’s groups in the North and the South. A joint statement of purpose was drafted, which surprisingly retained its reference to human rights.
Some of the marchers applied messages to long banners, designed and stitched a vivid scarf of symbolic colors for each of us, and assembled a massive quilt from squares given by survivors of wars. A documentary film crew, headed by Korean-American Deann Liem Borsay, was confirmed, even when its funding was uncertain.
We gathered in Beijing until, finally, with North Korea’s costly entry visa in hand, we confidently boarded with our one-way ticket: Beijing to Pyongyang. On arrival, my luggage was searched and my Beijing-purchased Korean guidebook nearly confiscated. I was warned that I must not leave it behind. This is a place where outside information is famously unwelcome. Dutifully, on departure, my “minder” checked my bag to be certain. Yet we soon felt warmly welcomed and upon our departure, left behind friends. Could any of us have predicted the tears as we said our goodbyes?
What did we do? What did we see? Certainly, few of the inhabitants of Pyongyang. Our comfortable hotel for foreigners was on a suburban island, despite Christine’s request for a central hotel where we might see the flow of the city. We were not at liberty to wander and we each had a local English-speaking “minder.” A vigilant handful of dark-suited, silent men occupied the rear of our two buses, watching them (or was it us?).North Korea is the most isolated country in the world, according to Victor Cha in The Impossible State. At odds with this was the fact that two American men were permitted to be among us—a photographer from National Geographic and a journalist from AP Press. Each worked without obvious interference. Just a few years ago the first permission to enter was given to any US media.
Pyongyang’s skyline is dotted with high-rises, yet this city of three million looks strangely vacant, with broad avenues little animated with pedestrians, cyclists, street furniture, or colour. It is strikingly uncommercial and clean. Although our hotel had power, the capital city, like the whole country, is a dramatically unlit, unsigned place. Nothing lights up the night. Our orientation included a busy round of tours—to a primary school, two modern but strangely empty hospitals, the rural birthplace of “The Great Leader,” Kim-Il Sung, (appointed by Stalin), and a textile factory.
Travelling on an asphalt road for foreigners, we also visited a gigantic exhibition hall in the stunningly beautiful mountainous countryside. The marble floored hall was brimming with gifts, and held life-size wax figures of the two deceased political leaders Kim. Polite bows from the waist before these was too much for any in our group. I wondered aloud where local hikers might be and learned that this activity was off-limits unless in a group. We were treated to a picnic by a picturesque, boulder-strewn river before touring an old university and a finely restored Buddhist temple site. Every meal provided was tasty and abundant. “Please cut back,” our group quietly requested, for this is a country where malnutrition remains a reality for many.
The day devoted to a peace conference was also formally managed but softened by rows of local women participants in vibrant national dress and long, passionate personal stories of loss inflicted by the Korean War. I was jolted to hear a disabled speaker wail for vengeance against the “American bastards.” Spontaneously, this gave way to dancing, singing and tearful hugging. An armless Korean War veteran said to Christine, “We’ll dance even more together when unification comes.” No space was left in the program for questions, either here or in South Korea, but our group did follow and comment on the moving accounts of women’s effective activism.
The goodbye arrangements were astounding. Whereas we dressed in white to symbolize mourning for their losses, 5,000 women in rainbow coloured national dress lined our Pyongyang departure route and a trim all-female brass band followed us to our buses.
But as we approached the DMZ to spend a memorable final night in attractive Kaesong, trouble was brewing for us in the South. Reunification resisters threatened to stand in our way as we emerged from the DMZ.
What to do? At breakfast Leymah prayed for our safety and we crossed by bus, not on foot, and at Kaesong’s sliver of a North-South commercial corridor. The much more historic crossing site of Panmunjom, where the armistice had been signed, was denied us.
About 1000 police met us as we entered South Korea, intentionally walking closely arm-in-arm to protect several women in our group who were named as targets. But all went well. Plain-clothes police even ringed our hotel in Seoul. I was impressed with this and the coalition of women’s groups, including the YWCA, who orchestrated this part of our journey to make new connections with peace women. As in the North, we mounted a panel to talk of women’s peaceful activism for change after hearing careful accounts of many efforts to push for policy change. It was the first time I heard the term “camp women”—women whose lives for years pivoted around the South’s military bases. I had seen the film “Singers in the Band,” so I knew that sex trafficking persists with impunity.
There is much to change and restore. Our team continues to discuss and carry out educational and publicity measures. Christine anticipates a meeting soon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Now this could be the stuff of another story!
Janis Alton is co-president of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.