On May 19, a group of 30 female peace activists, including activist Gloria Steinem and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland) and Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), touched down in Pyongyang, North Korea, to prepare to depart for a walk across the two-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The women, who aim to spur conversation about a conflict that dates back to the Korean War of 1950&endash;53, plan to depart on Sunday, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.
North and South Korea have been in a state of conflict for more than 60 years, when the war ended in an armistice, or cease-fire. This, however, has not meant an end to tension between the Koreas. Last fall, after more than three years of silence, the two countries failed to resolve conflict over the boundaries of the western sea border, resulting in a stalemate.
The women plan to walk across the DMZ, where there are three official checkpoints to cross the border, as a physical symbol of breaking through the barrier of ongoing tension. Both governments have approved the crossing, but the group is still waiting for permission from the UN Command, which controls the Panmunjom border. The activists are scheduled to visit a woman’s factory, maternity hospital and children’s preschool in Pyongyang this week.
The conflict between North and South Korea is one that Steinem says has overshadowed much of her life. At a UN press conference on April 24, she recounted a story of her high-school classmate, whose father, a World War II veteran, killed both his son and himself out of fear that his son would be drafted to the Korean War. She said she feels a particular obligation to work toward ending the decades-long conflict in the Koreas.
Now, in order to replace conflict with conversation, the women, honoring a tradition as peacemakers, will begin this walk.
Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, said that women have, time and time again, come together to successfully achieve peace and work across difference to create change. In 2000, the UN Security Council signed Resolution 1325, which outlined the vital role women have in conflict management and resolution.
“When the Security Council unanimously agreed on Resolution 1325, which was drafted by women, they said that women should be at every peace table and should participate at all levels of decision-making,” Weiss said.
Weiss recalled women’s first step into what she calls “citizen diplomacy,” when, in 1961, women worked together to stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which led to President Kennedy’s signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Weiss said that this precedent set the tone for the leadership roles women should have during times of conflict.
Steinem agreed, saying that history proves the power and influence that a group of united women can assert.
“Loss of memory is the root of oppression,” Steinem said. “This walk was not born yesterday. It is not saying that women are more virtuous than men as human beings. Simply we have had the luck of being born without masculinity to prove, and consequently, we really want to make use of that.”
During a visit in 2011, Steinem said she stood on the South Korean side of the DMZ, with empty buildings on either side, and where, she said, “No one dare walk in between.” She said after watching conflict resolve in Germany, South Africa and within the United States, she understands that achieving peace is a process.
Steinem noted that this upcoming walk has not been without naysayers: “It’s interesting to me as a founder of the Women’s Media Center that supposedly objective media reporters are calling us naïve,” she said. “It seems to me that that’s proof of a gender bias in the media.” She added that she hopes the press will look beyond that bias in the coverage of this historical event.
Steinem and her cohort said their hope is not to end what they call “the world’s longest war” but to instead replace silence with dialogue. Steinem cited reports from the US Army War College that said that the only way to prevent confrontation is to reach an agreement on ending the armistice from the Korean War and draft a formal security guarantee between the countries.
“In other words, it is talking that’s part of the solution,” she said. “I did not see the same media commentators calling the US Army War college naïve. It’s because it’s women calling for this.” She added, “I see we have a distance to go. This is by no means a judgment. This is a community striving, striving worldwide to understand that human beings are linked; we are not ranked.”