30 women from 15 countries crossed the DMZ dividing the two Koreas on 24 May 2015, under the banner of Women Cross DMZ. For months leading up to the crossing, I was excited by the promise of something grand. However, like many others, I was disappointed by the tepid conclusion. The women had originally planned to walk across Panmunjom as citizen diplomats, but instead were driven by bus from North to South Korea through Kaesong like tourists. Their mission of making a gesture of peace was laudable, but their execution was a public relations failure. Their principal goal was “to call for the official end of the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice agreement with a peace treaty” as a first step toward reconciliation and relief from the legacies of division and war. Ironically, the symbolic crossing has provoked a stark division between its few supporters and many more detractors. All Women Cross DMZ has managed to unify are detractors from both the right and left wings in South Korea and abroad.
Conservatives are blasting Christine Ahn, one of the lead organizers, for ostensibly praising Kim Il-sung while touring his birthplace with the delegation. According to North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong sinmun, Ahn expressed that “The Great Leader, born in such a humble, thatched-roof home, gave everything of himself, throughout his entire life, for the freedom and liberation of the people. Of his countless accomplishments, his greatest accomplishment was destroying the Japanese Empire liberating the fatherland for the sake of his fellow countrymen and for all mankind”.
Foreign journalists who report this “quotation” aren’t doing their due diligence in critically evaluating the source. Meanwhile, South Korean journalists who use this purported statement as evidence to discredit Ahn as “pro-North Korean” are being disingenuous. To be fair to Ahn and Women Cross DMZ, this is obviously boilerplate North Korean propaganda, written in characteristically stilted North Korean style. Perhaps because she has been consistently accused of being pro-North Korea leading up to the march, Ahn has been a relatively silent figure during the event.
As a matter of strategy and international appeal, Women Cross DMZ has relied almost exclusively on its three celebrity figureheads: American feminist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Mairead Maguire (1976) from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee (2011) from Liberia, who have monopolized the messaging. That messaging was sometimes confused, posing a grave liability for a mission that relies on symbolism for success. While the 24 May crossing was intended to coincide with the International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, it unfortunately also coincided with the anniversary of the “May 24 Sanctions” (5·24 Chejae) which were applied by South Korea in 2010 after it deemed North Korea responsible for torpedoing the ROKS Cheonan and killing forty-six sailors. The South Korean media is currently preoccupied with controversial National Assembly debates on lifting these particular sanctions, and popular suspicion of North Korea runs deep in South Korea today.
Women Cross DMZ seemed intent on not overtly criticizing either regime for the sake of diplomacy, but this has been inconsistent. “It was a real ‘triumph,’ Ms. Steinem said, to get an allusion to human rights included in a statement released before they began the 124-mile journey from Pyongyang to the DMZ”. Yet her remark only served to exacerbate criticism against the group for not overtly raising the issue of human rights violations by the North Korean regime. Bringing up such an issue before the march might have been a “poison pill” that threatened the entire endeavor, and Maguire attempted to emphasize their priorities in this way, “You get human rights when you have a normal situation without war”.
Another troubling incongruity was expressed in the exclusive and top-down approach of Women Cross DMZ. Advocacy work in inter-Korea issues NGOs has been done predominantly by women, according to Joanna Hosaniak, Deputy Director General of Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR). However, Women Cross DMZ seemed to be exhorting mostly male leaders to act, rather than calling on South Korean women on the ground for solidarity; before crossing from North Korea, Maguire announced, “We appeal to the UN Secretary General, to President Obama, to the North and South Korean leadership [for] a peace treaty to end the war and normalize relationships between the wonderful people of North and South Korea”. The sole female leader addressed, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, has never demonstrated a feminist agenda, and her appeal among conservative supporters rests in large part on nostalgia for her dictator father, the late President Park Chung-hee.
Many South Koreans are offended by the perceived ignorance and condescension of these foreign spokeswomen, self-congratulatory weekend warriors doing a flyby of countries they don’t understand and in which they have no personal investment. In any postcolonial society, people will be averse to the paternalism of the “white man’s burden”, even if it’s applied by foreign women. Without obvious “skin in the game”, without the collaboration of inter-Korean issues NGOs, and facing popular suspicion, Women Cross DMZ seemed hyperbolic in its self-aggrandizement, which itself has provoked alienation. Even though they are not the first civic group to cross the border, Steinem claimed after crossing, “This is an enormous triumph… We feel very celebratory and positive that we have created a voyage across the DMZ in peace and reconciliation that was said to be impossible”. Even though they are hardly the first group to work toward reconciliation, Gbowee proclaimed after one weekend in Korea, “I firmly believe it was a small but first step in the right direction”, and added, “We took a journey and left a legacy”. Steinem further insisted, “I know we had real human exchanges with North Korean women”. But given the language barrier, the certainty that any women they met were selected by North Korean authorities, and ineffectual incorporation of South Korean women, many observers remain unconvinced that Women Cross DMZ genuinely engaged with women of the Korean Peninsula.
Practically any media coverage of inter-Korean issues, including virtually all of the coverage of Women Cross DMZ, recycles the hackneyed, prescribed observation that “North and South Korea are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty”. While technically correct, this is facilely misleading, conditioning readers to wonder why the two Koreas won’t just sign a treaty. The Korean War ended suddenly after Joseph Stalin’s death because all parties had tired of fighting, except for South Korean President Syngman Rhee. North Korea and the People’s Republic of China signed the Armistice, but because of Rhee’s refusal to sign, the US circumvented South Korea and signed on behalf of all allied governments. According to the New York Times, on July 27, 1953, “No South Korean representative signed the truce, which South Korea will observe, at least temporarily, but did not approve”. It has never been a secret that South Korea is not a signatory to the Armistice, but it has been willfully neglected by the media. Substantively, this is more significant than whether or not a treaty has been signed.
To an uninformed outsider, it must seem so simple and common-sensical to appeal for a formal conclusion to the war, and one might wonder why myopic Koreans and their leaders stubbornly reject such an essential maneuver. But even a basic understanding of Korean history would reveal that the Korean War can have no formal end, because it had no formal beginning. To formally declare war, one must recognize the other state, just as signing a formal peace treaty requires one to recognize the legitimacy of the other state. The undeclared war started precisely because the two states have always claimed the other to be illegitimate. But today, the North Korean government has virtually nothing to lose by recognizing South Korea, which is already recognized by most of the world, but everything to gain if legitimized, potentially “including sanctions relief, recognition of its nuclear status, the withdrawal of US forces, and security guarantees that would amount to acquiescence to its crimes against humanity”.
It’s not the North Korean government that needs to be convinced that a formal peace treaty is desirable; it’s the South Korean government and people that need to be convinced. The status quo favors South Korea over the North. For the first time in the history of the division, a majority of South Koreans do not favor reunification. They no longer see reunification as unquestionably natural or desirable, but as a potential black hole of economic liability. Park Geun-hye’s public engagement with the North is limited to trying to sell South Koreans on the idea that there is a “bonanza” of trillions of dollars of untapped mineral resources to be extracted from the North if there is to be unification. The mythical bonanza does not sway South Koreans but bolsters fears of exploitation in North Koreans.
Women Cross DMZ initially sought approval for the border crossing from both Korean governments and the United Nations Command which operates the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. The North Korean government was the first to approve the event in early April, and the South Korean government only reluctantly approved weeks later in order to avoid international embarrassment. Ultimately, neither the South Korean government nor the UNC would allow the women to cross at Panmunjom where the 1953 Armistice was signed.
Despite their laudable goals and inspirational vision, Women Cross DMZ failed in their execution. They failed to collaborate with South Korean women and a broad spectrum of NGOs. They failed to overcome the innate, postcolonial apprehension against foreign paternalism. They even failed to demonstrate a clear understanding of Korean history. Between one and two million people were killed in the Korean War, mostly Korean civilians on both sides, the reality of which is tragic and sobering enough. But on their homepage, Women Cross DMZ claims that “nearly 4 million people were killed” in the war, which seems to count all casualties as deaths and plays into the macabre game of body-count shockmanship. Needless exaggeration is sensational in the short term, but desensitizes people in the long term.
Furthermore, they assert that, “2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division into two separate states by Cold War powers, which precipitated the… Korean War.” In 1945, Korea was temporarily divided by Allies, not enemies — the Cold War didn’t start until 1947 — and the two states, the ROK and DPRK, were founded in August and September 1948, respectively. The 1948 decision of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) to hold elections only in their own southern occupation zone made the temporary division permanent. Many Koreans at the time predicted that terrible consequence, and between 14,000 to 30,000 Koreans died in the Jeju Uprising protesting against that unilateral election. Without an appreciation for the history of the division, how can one have any hope of beginning to resolve it?
Even with these liabilities, the group could have won public support by demonstrating their sincerity and personal investment by defying the South Korean government and crossing at Panmunjom. The NYT’s Seoul bureau chief Choe Sang-hun said it best: “Several South Korean activists have in the past defied the ban on visiting North Korea without government permission and traveled to Pyongyang to promote reconciliation. When they returned home to face arrest, North Korea gave them a rousing send-off at Panmunjom”. As foreigners, Women Cross DMZ are not immune to, but insulated from South Korea’s National Security Law (NSL). Even Ahn, a Korean-American, has not been arrested in South Korea for allegedly praising the North, a crime under the NSL. Instead of posing as foreign civilizers, they could have used their foreign privilege to take a real risk and make a lasting impression.
Women Cross DMZ preached talk, but failed to create a dialogue. They advocated engagement, but acted in isolation from other groups. They spoke of danger, but took no risks. They penetrated a border, but only superficially. Yet after the crossing, they unabashedly announced, “We are currently discussing the idea of holding Women Cross DMZ each year around International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament on May 24 until a peace treaty is signed”.
What made Steinem, Maguire, and Gbowee successful in their own countries was their intimate knowledge of their home societies, the sympathy elicited by their personal loss, constructive engagement with disparate institutions and organizations, and most of all, their devoted and sustained struggle. But on the Korean Peninsula they squander their credibility to stage a frivolous spectacle.