Veteran Mississauga peace activist among women crossing Korean DMZ: Porter
I’ve spent the past couple days reading about the border between North and South Korea.
It is ironically called the “demilitarized zone.” Tank traps, electrical fences, landmines and some 2 million armed soldiers occupy the four-kilometre wide, 240 kilometre-long buffer. Lonely Planet calls it both “one of the scariest place on Earth” (echoing Bill Clinton) and a “major tourist attraction.”
That tells you a lot about the state of the world.
A group of 30 brave women from 15 different countries plan to walk across this terrifying place on Sunday to mark International Women’s Day of Peace and Disarmament. American feminist Gloria Steinem is one of them. So are Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Mairead Maguire (from Northern Ireland) and Leymah Gbowee (from Liberia).
The sole Canadian is Janis Alton, a 74-year-old grandmother and a veteran peace activist from Mississauga.
“I’m very honoured,” Alton told me a week ago, in a brief pause from packing her bags. She was leaving the next morning.
“We’re all of similar minds — to dialogue is the best way to deal with people you don’t agree with and perhaps one finds a way to open doors, find common ground and soften views.”
What little I know about North Korea was gleaned from the harrowing book Escape from Camp 14 and equally harrowing reports put out by South Korean spy agency. It’s a secretive, scary place where anyone deemed a threat to maniacal leader Kim Jong Un is starved to death in a concentration camp or blasted apart by anti-aircraft guns.
What I didn’t know was the country was created arbitrarily by external forces at the end of the Second World War. After defeating Japanese soldiers who had occupied the peninsula for decades, the Americans proposed dividing the country in two — establishing a temporary border along the 38th parallel to contain the Soviet troops to the north. The border became permanent.
The three-year Korean War followed, which ended in an armistice. There never was a formal peace agreement.
“The last article of the agreement was for the political leaders to convene a meeting in three months. That never happened,” explained Suzy Kim, a professor of Korean history at Rutgers University on the march.
“The division happened at the beginning of the Cold War and it has remained even while the Cold War ended.”
The women’s aim is poetic in its simplicity. It’s time to sign a peace treaty, they say.
“In my lifetime I have been told that the Soviet Union absolutely could not change without major bloodshed, that apartheid would never end in South Africa without an enormous war, that the Berlin Wall would not fall as long as the Soviet Union existed, that the Irish conflict would never (be) solved,” Steinem told the Washington Post, explaining her motives. “I’ve been consistently told that all of these conflicts would not end without war. Yet they have, and they have ended because people talked to each other.”
While Steinem is a lion, Alton is a lamb.
She’s physically small and soft-spoken. She became a peace activist by joining Canadian Voice of Women for Peace in the 1970s, and has been its gentle co-chair for longer than she can remember. She is known for leading young delegates down to New York to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference every March, and for hosting a feminist peacenik strawberry social in her Port Credit garden every June. When she speaks about war, her eyes brim with tears.
Why has she agreed to traverse the most dangerous place on earth?
She tells me about the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, passed 15 years ago.
“It says essentially that women should be involved in all peace building processes from prevention to post-conflict reconstruction,” she says. “It’s international law. We think it’s a kind of victory for women. But the implementation of it has not been really robust. . . . This seemed like an opportunity to implement that.”
Twitter has offered small, rare glimpses of North Korea since the women arrived in Pyongyang last Tuesday. There are photos from their propaganda tour — maternity hospitals, a factory, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the country’s “eternal president.” But there are also photos of them hugging North Korean women at a peace symposium. “They were singing, ‘We are healing, we want reunification.’ It was beautiful moment when tears were shed,” organizer Christine Ahn said Friday, over Periscope — the live-broadcasting app.
These women aren’t naïve. They are brave, kind and hopeful.
“We hope this will lead to an ongoing dialogue somehow,” Alton told me.
I can’t wait to hear all about her trip, once she’s back. I’ll fill you in too.
Catherine Porter can be reached at email@example.com