Peace activists and Gloria Steinem ready to cross Korea DMZ

Marchers from Pyongyang to Seoul include two Nobel laureates and are facing criticism after Ms. Steinem said it was 'bananas' to criticize North Korea over human rights. The march is due to start Sunday.

Jon Chol Jin/AP
Gloria Steinem, left, and Aiyoung Choi arrive at Pyongyang Airport in North Korea on Tuesday. A group of female peace activists, including Ms. Steinem and two Nobel laureates, are marching across the demilitarized zone on Sunday with the hopes of bringing world attention to the frozen Korean conflict.

An unusual international peace march by feminists who will trek from North to South Korea appears set to go Sunday after organizers agreed they would not cross the border at Panmunjom village in the demilitarized zone.

The event is also taking place amid mounting controversy over the political statements of some of its participants and disagreements within the group. 

Thirty activists including Gloria Steinem, an iconic figure in the women's rights movement in the United States, and two Nobel laureates say they want to kindle peace between the Koreas, which are technically still at war. 

Both North and South Korea approved the peace march. But this week Seoul’s Unification Ministry objected to a passage through Panmunjom, the symbolic border village that hosted the signing of the 1953 armistice after the Korean war. 

Today, after denouncing Seoul’s stance, the organizers agreed to cross near Kaesong, a city six miles north of the border. The route along a disused railway line sees regular cross-border traffic because of a jointly-run industrial complex that at one time was a potent symbol of reconciliation. 

“We are walking for peace and reunification of Korea, dialogue, empathy, forgiveness,” tweeted participant Coleen Baik on Friday. The group has largely avoided contact with the media since traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, which has patchy telecommunications.

Touched by Kim Il-sung

Controversy erupted today after several participants were quoted in North Korean state media praising the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung. 

The government mouthpiece Rodong Simun reported Thursday that Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland, was “touched” to learn about Mr. Kim’s “revolutionary life” on a visit to his birthplace near Pyongyang. The same article quoted Korean American activist Christine Ahn, who has been prominent in the forming of the group, as saying the senior Kim had committed his life to the freedom and liberation of the North Korean people. 

In a press release on Friday, South Korean organizers of the event distanced themselves from statements of “certain members."

“Such remarks compromise the overarching goal of this historical event and its potential benefits on South Korean society,” their statement said. 

Ms. Ahn last month dismissed efforts to label the march as pro-North Korean as “a Cold War, McCarthyite mentality” that is part of why the Koreas remain divided. Ms. Steinem recently said that demands to call out North Korea for its human rights record were "bananas." 

Human rights groups say the activists are whitewashing North Korea’s abuses of its people, including a gulag of work and prison camps documented last year by a UN commission.

“It would certainly be a worthy effort if Ms. Steinem or any other member of the group raised some of the hard human rights issues affecting North Korean women,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Then, certainly, the effort would be worthwhile. As far as I know, that hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think this is the intention of the march.” 

Mr. Scarlatoiu is concerned that the march organizers are “shifting blame” for inter-Korean problems to the US and South Korea. He points to a decision this week to cancel a visit to Kaesong by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, as evidence of insincerity by Pyongyang. 

North Korea alone not to blame

Other critics note the proximity of the delegation to figures who glorify the Kim family regime. South Korean media pounced on the presence of Roh Kil-nam, a Korean American who last year received the “Kim Il-sung Award” for championing the regime through his website.  

Lawrence Peck, an independent researcher who tracks pro-North Korea groups, says Mr. Roh "basically worships at the altar of the Kim cult and the Kim dictatorship.” 

Some Korea watchers remain hopeful about the potential of the march to inspire change and point out that efforts to resolve long-standing problems of identity and power require patience. 

“One thing that this group of women seems to possess is a very strong sense of the deep-rootedness of the problem: They don't see the ongoing Korean War entirely as a conflict generated or perpetuated by North Korea alone,” says Adam Cathcart, editor in chief of the Sino-NK analysis website. 

Mr. Cathcart adds that it is not the marcher's responsibility to “put forth a fully detailed and feasible new security blueprint for the region."

“They are simply pointing out that the current situation is more or less insane, which it is, and that we are still living with unresolved issues dating back to the birth of the Cold War in Asia, which we are,” he says. 

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