Why did ‘Women Cross DMZ’ in Korea?

On May 24, 2015, 30 women from 15 countries traversed north to south over the 38th parallel that has divided the Korean peninsula for almost 70 years. Although critics condemned these women as naïve dupes of the Pyongyang regime (e.g., South Korean protesters harangued them with insults such as “useful idiots” and “don’t deceive the world–you are unqualified for peace”), they are strategic actors and savvy activists. The fact is that most observers and critics knew little about the women and their work—and even less about global women’s activism. These women have walked over and been raked over political coals many-a-time and do not bend to knee-jerk criticism and sexist insults.

Crossing the divide: the women of ‘Women Cross DMZ’

Even though the DMZ (demilitarized zone) is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, many of the women had already confronted and survived greater dangers and threats to their lives and wrestled with greater political obstacles.

Women Cross DMZ, the official name for the peace walk, brought together women who are diverse in nationality, age, socioeconomic class, professional expertise, political views, and familiarity of peninsular issues. What they have in common is knowledge and experience of social and political discrimination, the ravages of war that afflict women and families in unique ways, and a commitment to peace-making. They also are equal opportunity critics of militarism, regardless of the political ideology of the agent.

Collectively, they have more knowledge of and experience with politics and gut-wrenching hardship than one might imagine. Some looked warlords, brutal dictators, and assassins straight in the eye and challenged their power and legitimacy. They mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to demand the end to violence against civilians by governments and non-state actors. Many put their own lives on the line in order to bring peace to their communities and nations.

The critics who chastised Women Cross DMZ for condoning or ignoring North Korean human rights violations need to educate themselves on the varieties of human rights violations these women have endured and overcome and their dedication to human rights activism within and outside their own countries. Their work ranges from fighting against the use of children as soldiers and rape as an instrument of war to domestic violence, poverty, access to education, and the freedom of religion. 

Who are these women and what are their qualifications?

Janis Alton of Canada has 40 years of experience in working with women for peace; Suzuyo Takazato is a famous women’s rights and peace activist from Okinawa; Liza Maza was a national legislator in the Philippines and a leader of the nationwide women’s organization, GABRIELA; Cora Weiss is the president of the Advisory Board of The Global Campaign for Peace Education, an offshoot of the Hague Appeal for Peace, an international network of organizations and individuals dedicated to the abolition of war and making peace a human right. The Global Campaign is endorsed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, and other international organizations. From 2000-2006, she was president of the International Peace Bureau (IPB), one of the world’s oldest international peace organizations, founded in 1891. IPB is also a Nobel Peace Laureate, as are 13 of its officers. Weiss also played a key role in drafting UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security (2000), which mandates the full participation of women in decision-making.

Mairead Maguire’s family became victims of the fighting among paramilitary troops in Northern Ireland, a conflict that waged hatred and destruction much longer than the conflict between the two Koreas. In the 1970s, Maguire transformed death and personal loss into political action and organized massive protests to end the bloodshed. She co-founded Peace People, which organized rallies for peace across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. During an intensive period of peace protests, there was a 70% decline in the rate of violence. Maguire received the Nobel peace prize in 1976.

Leymah Gbowee helped lead thousands of women from competing ethnic groups and religions to pray and protest together to end fourteen years of brutal civil wars in Liberia. Gbowee and her “peace warriors” pushed the dictator Charles Taylor and numerous rebel fighters to pursue peace talks and press the nation toward reconciliation. Women’s pressure helped put Taylor into exile and pave the way for free elections in 2006. Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. 

Human rights lawyer Erika Guevara of Mexico has devoted her professional life to human rights and humanitarian assistance around the world. She is the director for the Americas at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International and managed operations in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Venezuela for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. Amnesty International has publicized the DPRK’s violations via multi-media platforms and worked extensively with the UN and other international bodies to address various forms of domestic terror in North Korea.

For those who believe that military experience is a requirement for foreign policy engagement, get to know Ann Wright, a colonel in the U.S. Army with a Master’s Degree in National Security Affairs from the U.S. Naval War College and thirty years of soldiering experience through active duty/Army reserves. At Fort Bragg from 1982 to 1984, she formulated contingency plans for invading several countries, including Iraq. Wright also was a staff member to the Chief of UN Somalia operation (UNOSOM) during the heat of warfare between U.S. forces and Somali warlords. She also became a Foreign Service Officer and received the State Department’s Award for Heroism for having led the evacuation of several thousand people from war-torn Sierra Leone. Among several high-level positions, Wright was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Afghanistan and led the reopening of the U.S. embassy following the U.S. invasion in 2001. Later, this soldier-diplomat acted on her conscience and resigned from the Foreign Service in protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. She chose to serve the international public since then as a peace activist.

These are just few of the women, but it is clear that members of Women Cross DMZ have extensive expertise in various areas of foreign policy and international politics. Such women challenged the world to care about reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula when so many policymakers, diplomats, and thought leaders stand by while North Korea continues to up the nuclear ante and millions of Koreans live with broken hearts over their broken families.

Women on the margins of the foreign policy process want in

The women’s journey sheds a light beyond the inter-Korean conflict: the multiple ways women are left out of formal foreign policy processes and the creative politics in which women engage to draw attention to difficult policy issues.

Imagine this: If male Nobel laureates such as Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (1978), Lech Walesa (1983), Elie Wiesel (1986), Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), Nelson Mandela (1993), and Kofi Annan (2001) had joined forces to walk for peace across the DMZ, might they have been lambasted by critics and members of the media for their political naïveté? Would they have been so disrespectfully treated and insulted as know-nothings about the reconciliation of divided peoples? 

Women Cross DMZ sent a pressing message that got ignored by most observers: Women want and need to participate in international negotiations and foreign policy processes. War and peace are not gendered domains. War affects all people, and peace can benefit all people, men and women. If women cannot work toward reconciliation, human rights, and human security within the institutions of power, they will conduct politics in the streets and plazas—and even in the DMZ.