Walking together: imagining a new chapter in Korean history

The goal of the international women's walk across the De-Militarized Zone is to help bring peace and reunification to Korea, and to open a new dialogue marked by understanding, and -  ultimately - forgiveness.

Christine Ahn
18 March 2015

This is the second of a two-part article on the international women's walk for peace and the reunification of Korea. Read part one

The Korean War Armistice Agreement in 1953 temporarily halted the Korean War. It has never been replaced with a peace treaty.

“Contrary to conventional understanding, the armistice has not been an instrument of maintaining an uneasy peace,” says Rutgers University Korea history professor Suzy Kim. “In fact, it has been repeatedly violated, by both sides, most egregiously by the introduction of atomic weapons into South Korea in 1958 by the United States, violating Article 2 Paragraph 13d of the armistice which stipulated that no new weapons be introduced into the peninsula.” Suzy argues that the “current tensions and military buildup, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, have been the result of the armistice, a temporary military cease-fire that saw the need for a political settlement to achieve peace in Korea, and stipulated exactly that.”

In the fall of 2013, I began reaching out to a network of prominent women, including the renowned American feminist author Gloria Steinem asking if she would consider crossing the 2 mile-wide and 155 mile-long De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea with other women peacemakers to help bring peace to Korea. Steinem promptly replied, Yes. My high school classmates went to war there.”  According to Gloria, one of her classmate’s father had returned from the Korean War deeply traumatized, and instead of allowing his son who was drafted in the Korean War, he “killed himself rather than see his son go to war. I never forgot that.”

On the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division, 30 women peacemakers will walk for peace in Korea. Our delegation includes two Nobel Peace Laureates, authors, artists, academics, humanitarian aid workers, faith leaders, mothers and grandmothers from a dozen countries, including several nations that fought in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Posed photo of 11 women

Women Demilitarize the Zone panellists at the UN CSW this weekWe are walking to invite all concerned to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, marked by dialogue, understanding, and -  ultimately - forgiveness. 

We are walking to help unite Korean families tragically separated by an artificial, man-made division.

We are walking to lessen military tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have ramifications for peace and security throughout the world.

We are walking to urge our leaders to re-direct funds devoted to armaments towards improving people’s welfare and protecting the environment.

We are walking to end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty.

We are walking to ensure that women are involved at all levels of the peacebuilding process, including at the peacemaking table when that historic peace treaty is negotiated and finally signed.

This women’s peace walk will take place on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women and the 15th anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325, ushering in a new set of global standards ensuring women’s role in peacebuilding. 

Our tentative plan is to meet with North Korean women in Pyongyang for an International Peace Symposium and to walk with them to the DMZ. On May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, we hope to cross the DMZ and to be greeted by South Korean women.Together, we will walk for peace and hold a second International Peace Symposium in South Korea. Our delegation hopes to hear from both North and South Korean women on how the division and state of war has impacted their lives and their dreams for a united Korea.  Two Nobel Peace Laureates, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, will share how they galvanized women to bring an end to violent conflict within their countries.

We realize that crossing the most militarized border in the world is no simple task. We are seeking approval from both Korean governments and the UN Command. We received a letter of intent last year from Pyongyang supporting our event, with a stern caveat: if conditions are ripe. Given this tense moment on the Korean peninsula, they may not be. However, we are in the process of negotiating with organizers who have conveyed to us that they “understand the significance of this occasion and the important peacemaking role that women have played throughout history.”

On Christmas Eve, we received the best gift we could have imagined through our advisor Governor Bill Richardson, when we were informed by the UN Command that, upon receiving confirmation from South Korea, they would be prepared to faciliatate our DMZ crossing. We hope to have favourable news soon from both Korean governments; however, we are prepared to make alternate plans to ensure that women walk for peace in Korea this year. We remain hopeful because in addition to the five New Zealanders who crossed the DMZ by motorbike in 2013, thirty two Korean Russians also crossed the DMZ by motorcade in 2014 - with both President Park's and Chairman Kim's blessing. 

At a press conference on 11th March at the United Nations Correspondents Association earlier this month, several women peacemakers participating in the peace walk spoke about why they were walking for Korea’s peace and reunification. Hyun-Kyung Chung, a South Korean citizen who is a professor of Interfaith Engagement at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, said the division of Korea has “produced a divided psyche and personality, which makes it so easy to accuse our opponent as the enemy.” She said that she grew up in South Korea with an “enemy making mentality” which has been institutionalized from both sides of the DMZ. Ending the Korean War with a peace treaty, Hyun-Kyung said “will bring deeper democracy, sustainable peace, and flourishing Salim (life giving) culture on the Korean peninsula and with neighboring countries.”

Ann Wright, a retired US Army Reserve Colonel who served for 29 years, and as a U.S. diplomat and deputy ambassador in eight countries, said that she is participating in the women’s peace delegation to Korea because “I believe my government should support the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas by de-escalating military tensions.” In 2013, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted that the United States was “within an inch of war” with North Korea. Wright said of the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and North Korea’s nuclear programme, “although both sides claim defense, when there is no communication and just a show of force, the chances for 'miscalculation' are unimaginably high and very dangerous.” 

Filmmaker Abigail Disney, who produced the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell about Liberian women whose nonviolent direct action stopped civil war in their country and ushered in democratic elections, said that “American women have a very important role to play in this... because of the role our country played in drawing the line and now very aggressively plays in enforcing it. We have a very important obligation to step forward and take responsibility for what our ancestors have done and for what we now actively do in terms of filling the world with more weapons and bringing countries around the world closer and closer to conflict.” 

Suzuyo Takazato, of Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence from southern Japan, said that she is walking for peace in Korea because “the Japanese government uses the unresolved Korean conflict and possible threat of North Korea to justify the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa.” She said that Okinawan people “have suffered numerous cases of accidents and crimes, violence against women, and environmental destruction by the U.S. military stationed in Okinawa. Without a peace treaty ending the Korean War, the Asia-Pacific region is plagued by insecurity, which underlies this military build-up.”

Gloria Steinem, who has visited the DMZ from South Korea says of the DMZ, “there is no other strip of land more symbolic of long-term division.” We hope to cross the DMZ to renew Korean people’s hope that the DMZ can and must be crossed to reunify families and to begin to heal the divided peninsula. 

Christine Ahn will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders, 24-26 April.  50.50 will be reporting live from the conference.  Read more articles by participants and speakers. 


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