Women Cross the DMZ
by Janis Alton
editor’s note: Janis Alton travelled in May, 2015
I was part of a recent international women’s walk for peace – not so unusual in itself except this time the context was Korea. The plan was to walk across the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. For 70 years this has been a heavily mined and guarded no-man’s land (250 km long, approximately 4 km wide) intended to enforce the hasty decision made at the end of World War II to award the victors this obscure Korean peninsula occupied by Japan for 35 years. And so Washington slapped a line along the 38th parallel with the north portion’s administration, intended as a temporary trusteeship, handed over to the USSR and the southern portion to control by the USA.
It was a decision which bore little relationship to Korean history or geography and before long provoked a violent push for unification, reputedly led by the North. For certain, the South was soon in tatters. The young United Nations was called upon to respond and for the first time in its brief history the Security Council voted for military intervention riding on the unusual opportunity presented when the USSR was absent. Twenty-one nations responded to help South Korea, including Canada, beginning a bloody 3 year struggle with enormous casualties – civilian and military- as high as 3-4 million. The Korean War, 1950-1953, ended on 27 July 1953 not with unification but with a cease-fire drawn up by China, the two Koreas, and the USA. And there it remains – an armistice but not an elaborated peace treaty. Talks which were to begin again in three months never transpired leaving a political stalemate dubbed “The Forgotten War.”
Today, both Koreas are mired in battle-ready tactics – coastal war games, nuclear tests and threats by the North, broad sanctions in response and, now, new military posturing by neighbouring China and Japan deepen the tensions. Sadly, the far-from-prosperous North boasts the 4th largest military in the world. All this has prodded more than a few to try to open the doors to dialogue. And so my story begins….
My invitation to participate in the women’s walk from North to South across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) for peace and reunification was extended enthusiastically by Cora Weiss in March of this year during the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Since 1987, I have led study/consultation tours to the UN for Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) and have often worked with Cora, a prominent international disarmament colleague with roots in the highly similar Women Strike for Peace, founded in the USA a year after VOW. “We want a Canadian to be part of this historic women’s initiative, and you we can trust” she said. I jumped at the opportunity which Canadian M. P. Libby Davies (BC- NDP) had declined. Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) which legally promotes women’s inclusion in all peacebuilding was not far from my mind.
I was added to the mix of 29 feminist peace women from 15 countries, 7 of us over 70, the youngest just 23. Our team included well-known Nobel Laureates Mairaed Maguire (Northern Ireland) and Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) as well as pioneering American feminist and author, Gloria Steinem. These three deservedly attracted much media attention throughout. Perhaps Gloria’s striking height added to their draw. As a peacewoman accustomed to press disinterest, I was greatly surprised by the international TV interest which kept up wherever we went. (To sample some of the Women Cross the DMZ podcasts on YouTube just type in this topic.)
My room-mates, Meri Joyce, of Australia, currently resident in Japan as Peaceboat staff and advocate/trainer of citizen diplomacy and Netsai Mushonga of Zimbabwe, an international trainer in non-violent conflict resolution, illustrate some of the group’s array of peace building skills. Included were human rights leaders from Guam, The Philippines, Okinawa, mainland Japan and Mexico, the bold CODEPINK co-founders, historians, academics, a Korean-American inter-faith professor, a Nordic Red Cross worker with the unusual experience of working for three years in North Korea, and a retired ex-military USA diplomat. Just meeting these wonderful women, some coming at personal risk, was a highlight.
The idea of this walk for peace and reunification came from a decade old dream of writer and principal organizer Korean-American Christine Ahn. Literally. Her dream, retold during the trip, was of women’s key help in a devastating Korean situation. The lingering state of war on the peninsula merged with her vision of the potential for women to bring about change. The first civilian allowed to step across the DMZ from south to north was the billionaire founder of Hyundai in 1998. Born in the north, he was one of many Koreans trapped in the south with the policy of division. Since, some family visits have been allowed but about 90,000 still wait for the chance. Officially, no North-South contact is yet allowed. Could our anticipated inter-personal women’s dialogue be a lubricant for any policy softening/change? There was no harm in trying.
News that a few New Zealanders on motorbikes has recently crossed the DMZ, spurred Christine to explore the possibility. Permission seeking letters were delivered to each government as well as to the UN head of command located at Panmunjom in the DMZ, NGO funds were expectantly raised and preparatory meetings held with women’s groups in the North and the South. A joint statement of purpose was drafted which surprisingly retained its reference to human rights. A creative handful among us applied messages to long banners for our crossing march, a vivid scarf of symbolic colours was designed and stitched for each of us, a massive quilt was assembled from squares given by survivors of wars, and, a documentary film crew, headed by Korean-American Deann Liem Borsay, was confirmed, even when its funding was uncertain.
We gathered in Beijing until, finally, with North Korea’s costly entry visa in hand, we confidently boarded with our one-way ticket, Beijing to Pyongyang. On arrival, my luggage was searched and my Beijing–purchased Korean guide book nearly confiscated. I was warned that I must not leave it behind. This is a place where outside information is famously unwelcome. Dutifully, on departure my “minder “checked my bag to be certain.
Yet we soon felt warmly welcomed and left behind friends. Could any of us have predicted the tears as we said our goodbyes? What did we do? What did we see?
Certainly little of the inhabitants of Pyongyang. Our very comfortable hotel for foreigners was on a suburban island despite Christine’s request for a central hotel where we might see the flow of the city. We were not at liberty to wander and it was clear from our first outing that we each had a local English-speaking “minder.” Watching them, or was it us, was a vigilant handful of dark-suited, silent men, occupying the rear of our two buses. North Korea is the most isolated country in the world, according to Victor Cha in The Impossible State and so, at odds with this, was the two American men permitted to be among us – a photographer from National Geographic and a journalist from AP press. Each worked without obvious interference. Just a few years ago the first permission to enter was given to any US media. .
Pyongyang’s skyline is dotted with high rises, yet this city of 3 million looks strangely vacant, with broad avenues little animated with pedestrians, cyclists, street furniture or colour. It is strikingly non-commercial and clean. Although our hotel had power, the capital city, like the whole country, is a dramatically unlit, unsigned place. Nothing lights up the night. Our orientation included a busy round of tours – to a primary school, two modern but strangely empty hospitals; and to the rural birthplace of ‘The Great Leader,” Kim-Il Sung, (appointed by Stalin); a textile factory and, travelling on an asphalt road for foreigners, we visited a gigantic exhibition hall in the stunningly beautiful mountainous countryside. The marble floored hall was brimming with gifts, and held life-size wax figures of the two deceased political leaders Kim. A polite bow from the waist before these was too much for any in our group. I wondered aloud where local hikers might be and learned this activity was off-limits unless in a group. We were treated to a picnic beside a picturesque, boulder-strewn river before touring an old university and a finely restored Buddhist temple site.
Every meal provided was tasty and abundant. “Please cut back”, our group quietly requested for this is a country where malnutrition remains a reality for many.
The day devoted to a peace conference was similarly formally managed but softened by rows of local women participants in vibrant national dress and long, passionate personal stories of loss inflicted by the Korean War. I was jolted to hear a disabled speaker wail for vengeance against the “American bastards.” Spontaneously, this gave way to dancing, singing and tearful hugging. An armless Korean War veteran said to Christine, “We’ll dance even more together when unification comes!” Missing here, and in South Korea, was any program space for questions but our group did follow with comments and moving accounts of women’s effective activism.
The goodbye arrangements were astounding. While we dressed in white to symbolize mourning for their losses, five thousand women in rainbow coloured national dress lined our Pyongyang departure route while a trim all-female brass band followed us to our buses.
But as we approached the DMZ to spend a memorable final night in attractive Kaesong, trouble was brewing for us in the South. Reunification resisters threatened to stand in our way as we emerged from the DMZ. What to do? At breakfast Leymah prayed for our safety and we crossed by bus, not on foot, and at Kaesong’s sliver of a North-South commercial corridor. The much more historic crossing site of Panmunjom where the armistice had been signed was denied us. .
About 1000 police met us as we entered South Korea walking closely arm in arm intentionally to protect several women in our group named as targets. But all went well. Even plain clothed police ringed our hotel in Seoul. I was decidedly impressed with this and the coalition of women’s groups, including the YWCA, who orchestrated this part of our journey to make new connections with peace women. As in the North, we mounted a panel to talk of women’s peaceful activism for change after hearing careful accounts of many efforts to push for policy change. It was the first time I heard the term “camp women” – women whose lives for years pivoted in and around the South’s military bases. I had seen the film “Singers in the Band” at the CSW to know that sex trafficking persists with impunity.
There is much to change and restore. Our team continues to discuss and carry out educational and publicity measures. Christine anticipates a meeting soon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Now this could be the stuff of another story!