Can women end Korean War? After DMZ crossing, Gloria Steinem says 'Yes'

Ms. Steinem was one of 30 women activists, including Nobel laureates Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee, who crossed the demilitarized zone between the North and South on Sunday. Protesters say their campaign was naive.

Lim Byung-Shik/Yonhap/Reuters
US activist and feminist Gloria Steinem (3rd l.) and other members of the WomanCrossDMZ group march with South Korean peace activists along a barbed wire fence near a military check point in Paju on May 24, 2015, after the group crossed the heavily-fortified Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The international group of women activists crossed the heavily-fortified DMZ on Sunday in what they said was a symbolic act for peace.

International women activists who crossed the border dividing North and South Korea capped a controversial campaign for peace Monday by presenting the unresolved war as partly a women's and a feminist issue.

Some 30 activists, including American women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel laureates, joined local peace campaigners in Seoul to discuss the role women could play in officially ending the Korean War.

While an armistice ended hostilities in 1953, the divided neighbors have yet to sign a peace treaty, leaving them technically in conflict. 

“I feel as if I have just come from visiting a kind, hard-working and loving family who are doing their best to survive under a controlling, totalitarian head of household,” Ms. Steinem told an audience in Seoul about her experience for several days in North Korea, prior to Sunday’s crossing of the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas for more than six decades.

Extending an analogy between victims of domestic violence and the citizens of the divided Koreas, Steinem said women could use their experience of life as mothers and nurturers to give Koreans “proof of a humane alternative” to the status quo.

Women, she said, have a special ability to make connections between people because they are not burdened by male needs to show aggressive masculinity.

Steinem pointed to two Nobel Peace Prize-winning members of the delegation – Northern Irish activist Mairead Maguire and Liberian campaigner Leymah Gbowee – as examples of the power of women to inspire reconciliation.

“They prove to the world that women can make peace, on their own without governments, when sometimes governments cannot,” she said.

Later in a program that took place Monday at the city hall in downtown Seoul, Christine Ahn, the Korean-American who played a leading role in organizing the group, gave an emotional speech in which she vowed to “continue walking until the war is over.”

On Sunday the women crossed the Unification Bridge on the border by bus after a six-day trip to North Korea.

Their plans to walk through the symbolic “truce village” of Panmunjom on the border were dropped after opposition by South Korea’s Unification Ministry. While the border sees a limited amount of regular traffic to and from a jointly run industrial complex in the North’s city of Kaesong, general travel between the countries is mostly banned. 

“We appeal to the UN Secretary General, to President Obama, to the North and South Korean leadership [for] a peace treaty to end the war and normalize relationships between the wonderful people of North and South Korea,” Ms. Maguire, the 1976 recipient of the Nobel peace prize, said at the DMZ shortly before the group crossed.

After disembarking from their bus in the South, the women, dressed in white with rainbow-patterned sashes and scarves, walked to a nearby peace park outside the border city of Paju. They celebrated with crowds of South Koreans with a concert in what was unusually warm weather.

Yet nearby, several hundred mostly older demonstrators accused the organizers of whitewashing North Korea’s human rights abuses, which include the torture and execution of dissidents, or criticized them for statements in recent days that appeared to support the Kim family regime in Pyongyang, now headed by youthful Kim Jong-un. 

Days ago a North Korean state-run media mouthpiece had quoted Maguire and Ms. Ahn as praising Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding dictator. That elicited a wave of negative publicity in the South Korean press. The group later said the women had been misquoted.

“I don’t like the way these ladies, Steinem and so-called Nobel Prize laureates, are participating in this one-sided propaganda event,” said Lee Dong-bok, a former South Korean lawmaker who attended Sunday’s protest. 

Mr. Lee, who served as part of a number of inter-Korean delegations in the 1970s and 1990s, described the marchers as “useful idiots in the service of North Korea’s political interests.”

Protest against the women continued Monday in Seoul with defectors from the North Korean regime shouting loudly outside the city hall symposium. They held signs saying “Down with N. Korea!” and “WomenCrossDMZ go to hell!” 

Inside, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the US anti-war activist group Code Pink, who is usually demonstrating outside the US Congress, defended the feminist peace campaign, saying they had started an important discussion about conditions on the Korean peninsula that she said were largely ignored. 

“I’ve had very educated people say to me: You mean there hasn’t been a peace treaty between North and South Korea?” she said.

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