Peace activists’ travels through North and South Korea a small step in long walk to peace: Porter
Thirty women, including Gloria Steinem and Nobel laureates, sought dialogue on reunification of countries still separated 62 years after Korean War.
Janis Alton has returned from Korea.
The tender-hearted veteran peace activist from Mississauga was one of 30 women whocrossed the ironically named demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, calling for the countries to finally sign a peace treaty, 62 years after the Korean War.
The 240-kilometre-long border is decorated with tank traps, landmines, electric fences and some 2 million soldiers.
Among the 30 women were Nobel laureates Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland), as well as American feminist hero Gloria Steinem. What company!
I was bursting with questions for Alton. What was Pyongyang like? Was the DMZ as terrifying as it sounds? And tell me all about Steinem!
We settled onto the deck overlooking her lush garden in Port Credit, and she slowly unpacked her memories and impressions.
The delegation was greeted in the North Korean capital by women dressed in colourful traditionalgowns and holding up red bouquets along the roadside. Other than that, Alton saw very few pedestrians in the capital. “Pyongyang is so empty,” she said.
They spent six days there, on a staged tour of temples, schools, theatres and mostly empty hospitals. Alton’s minder was always close by.
Since the peace march was announced, American and South Korean press have lambasted the women as naive at best and, at worst, glossy propaganda material for Kim Jong Un’s repressive regime.
They responded that their visit was not the solution to the 70-year-old stalemate. It was just one small step in a long walk towards peace.
The Korean Peninsula was arbitrarily divided at the 38th parallel by American and Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War. The three-year Korean War erupted soon after. It ended in an armistice, with a promise that political leaders would convene again for a peace treaty. That never happened.
Since then, American troops — now numbered around 30,000 — have been stationed, trigger ready, in South Korea. And the North Koreans have developed long-range missiles.
The male approach has not brought peace, the women said. Perhaps a women’s approach of talking might work better.
Did they have any authentic conversations with North Korean women?
“We feel we had some very good conversations,” said Alton, describing the peace symposium held in Pyongyang, attended by 150 women.
At the end, the North Korean women spontaneously broke into song, singing “Our hope is reunification.” Some danced; another wiped the tears of the march organizer, Christine Ahn.
“As we left, one woman touched my arm and said to me, ‘Talk to them — the South Koreans — about federation,’ ” Alton said.
Their reception in South Korea was not warm.
Alton and her colleagues had planned to walk into South Korea at Panmunjom — the “truce village” where the armistice was signed.
But the South Korean government would not give them clearance. Instead, they crossed at Kaesong, a busy industrial town, in their bus. The American soldiers would not let them walk, Ahn told me over Skype from Honolulu, where she lives. Their bags were searched, and books about North Korea confiscated, she added.
Once in South Korea, they were met by 1,000 police in riot gear and a handful of angry protestors.
“It raised questions about why there is that level of disagreement about our objectives — to help promote peace and dialogue for reunification,” said Alton. “I think all of us are still searching for those answers.”
Ahn was told she was a particular target. Her take-away from this: “The real war is a psychological war. It’s the most advanced propaganda war in modern history because the Cold War never ended in Korea.”
The women held a second peace symposium in Seoul.
Now that she’s home, Alton plans on visiting cabinet offices in Ottawa and sharing what she learned.
“Canadians fought in the Korean War. We are responsible for 4 million deaths that occurred in that three-year terrible period,” she said. “It seems just to have a part in the peace treaty.”
As for Steinem, now 81, Alton said: “She’s fun and spontaneous and very down to earth. She made us all laugh.”
In my last column on this, I reported that Alton was 74 because that’s what she told me. “When you are this age, you stop paying attention to your exact age,” she explained to me sheepishly. For the record, she is 77. I tell you this because I have to correct the record. Otherwise, I’m with her — who cares!