30 female activists are risking their lives for peace on Sunday
This Sunday, a group of 30 female activists will walk across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, in hopes of sparking dialogue about the countries’ division and to begin a “formal end” to the Korean War. Despite criticism against the women for engaging with North Korea, the group will march in peaceful protest through the Kaesong Industrial Region, a collaborative economic North-South venture just north of the DMZ.
The group, calling themselves WomenCrossDMZ, is comprised of women from 15 countries, including legendary U.S. women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Mairead Maguire of Ireland. Originally, the women intended to walk across Panmunjom, the site where the two countries signed an armistice ending the 1950-53 Korean War — but they were forced to change their plans when government officials were unable to guarantee their safety. As NBC points out, “Despite its name, the demilitarized zone — or DMZ — is one of the most heavily-armed borders on the planet. . . [and] the Koreas are effectively still at war.”
In preparation for Sunday’s march, WomenCrossDMZ has been visiting local hospitals and factories in North Korean capital Pyongyang, and hope to hold peace symposiums in both North and South Korea in order to further promote their hopes for reconciliation.
“I feel this is very much our spiritual and political duty to be part of every peace table,” Steinem said at a press conference, according to CNN. “It has often been the case that citizenry — women and men — can make progress when it is not possible for the officials to be able to meet at that moment in time.”
The protest is certainly not without controversy, and many human rights activists have criticized the group for allegedly neglecting to factor North Korean women into their goals. WomenCrossDMZ hopes to establish a permanent peace treaty between the two countries to replace the armistice, and to help reunite families divided by the war — but CNN points out that these are basically the same demands of the North Korean government.
“If they would become Women Cross the China-North Korea border, they could actually help stop the horrific violation of North Korean females,” Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, told CNN; referring to the horrific and incredibly common human trafficking of North Korean women who cross into China.
Yet many insist that, perhaps, trying to do something about North and South Korea’s armistice is better than the world’s current strategy of doing nothing. At the very least, given how much attention the march has gotten thus far (when it hasn’t even happened yet), it might just be able to help foster a real dialogue about how to move forward.
“The group is pushing for empathy — not for the regime but for those suffering under it,” Emily Rauhala wrote in a piece for TIME. “The world needs to stand up to North Korea. Its record on human rights is appalling, its leader cruel. But the current strategy — isolation, condemnation and mockery — is not working. As such, it’s hard to condemn a walk for peace.”
And WomenCrossDMZ seems to agree with this way of looking at it.
“We have accomplished what we set out to do — to walk across the DMZ on behalf of both North and South Korean women. They cannot walk, so we must,” Steinem told The Associated Press. “Over 60 years of silence has not worked. Why not try human contact?”
Appropriately, Sunday is International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. We hope that the march remains a peaceful and non-violent one.