It was a thrill to be part of the international delegation to visit North Korea and cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ – a serious oxymoron, it’s highly militarized) separating North and South Korea. We were 30 women from 15 nations, together with a film crew directed by Deann Borshay Liem who is making a documentary, Crossings, about this trip.
As I checked in at San Francisco airport an airline worker said, “Pyongyang? That’s in Thailand, right?” When I said, “North Korea,” he frowned and asked, “What d’you want to go there for?” echoing the negative image so many outsiders have of that isolated country, officially called the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The group met in Beijing on May 17 for a 2-day orientation, and to get our visas and plane tickets for the DPRK. We were stepping into a very complex situation – a minefield in many ways. Three points help to explain the context:
1. Korea was under Japanese imperial rule from 1910 till 1945. Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II was a moment of liberation for Koreans who had many ideas for the future of the country, but immediately the Cold War powers – the US and then Soviet Union — divided the peninsula at the 38th parallel. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of this division, which led to the creation of 2 states, and then the Korean War (1950 to 1953) – 3 years of dreadful slaughter where about 4 million people died, mostly Korean civilians.
2. The war ended with an Armistice – or ceasefire — Agreement – but no peace treaty. There were two signatories: Lt General William Harrison Jr. of the United States Army signed for the UN command, and North Korean General Nam Il for North Korean and Chinese forces. This agreement created the DMZ as the new border and urged the governments to get together within three months to negotiate a peace treaty. Over 60 years later this has never happened.
3. Instead there’s been heavy militarization on both sides of the DMZ – though South Korea’s military, major US bases in South Korea, and joint war games far outgun North Korea. Also the United States has imposed economic sanctions against DPRK. Each side demonizes and dehumanizes the other, with family members separated by the DMZ for decades.
Our goal was to focus international attention on these issues, to call for renewed dialogue and engagement, and to hold up women’s leadership for peace and disarmament. This project began, literally, as a dream. Korean American writer and activist Christine Ahn dreamed of women ending the still unresolved Korean War. She assembled a diverse group that included Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureates from Liberia and Northern Ireland, and US feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem. Their high visibility generated press interest and gave a measure of leverage and protection to the delegation as a whole. Other participants were scholars, organizers, humanitarian workers, faith leaders, and a social media whiz who sent live bulletins via Periscope, the first time this had been used in North Korea. Four members of our International Women’s Network were in the group: Suzuyo Takazato (Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence), Kozue Akibayashi (International President, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), Lisa Natividad (Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice) and me.
We flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on May 19, to a warm welcome from our hosts: the Korean Committee for Solidarity with the World’s People, and the Democratic Women’s Union. To help us understand more about their country they’d planned two days of site visits. Our hectic itinerary included, first off, the birthplace of leader Kim Il Sung, then a kindergarten for children gifted in the arts, a women’s hospital, a new children’s hospital, and a new women’s dormitory for factory workers. We lunched at a popular noodle restaurant, enjoyed a multi-media show extolling the country’s accomplishments, visited the oldest Buddhist temple in Korea, and toured the International Friendship Exhibition where official gifts presented to the leaders are displayed. Members of the host committees and women in their twenties and thirties, all fluent in English, were our guides and interpreters.
We looked and listened and asked questions – not all of them answered — trying to figure out where we were and what to make of it. Before leaving I’d read an article by Korea scholar Hazel Smith, warning about clichés and stereotypes. The information we receive about North Korea in this country is heavily filtered through western lenses, much of it downright inflammatory. Photographer David Guttenfelder also traveled with us. He’s been to the DPRK 40 times in the past 15 years, fascinated by this isolated society, and wanting to humanize people who have been systematically de-humanized in the western media.
We stayed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, with other foreigners. We ate well – and wondered about hunger and how prevalent it is. Through the windows of our air-conditioned tour buses we glimpsed snatches of daily life: beat-up buses carrying workers through the streets of Pyongyang; uniformed students going home at the end of the school day; people hanging out by the train station; farm workers planting rice by hand, their bicycles lined up neatly on the edge of the fields; a man carrying buckets of water on a wooden yoke across his shoulders to water rice seedlings. We saw political billboards but no ads. Women who’d been to Pyongyang before noticed there are more cars on the road now. Some of the high-rise apartment buildings looked very much the worse for wear. Are they all occupied, we wondered. Pyongyang is a big city but there were very few lights on at night. Is this a sign of a serious energy shortage? a consciousness about conserving resources? both? or something else?
The heart of our visit was a peace symposium where older women talked about their terrible experiences of the Korean War. An army officer, with many decorations on her uniform, had worked in a field hospital. She described doing surgery during air raids, shocked to realize that US bombers were attacking buildings identified as hospitals, which is against the Geneva Convention. She said that from 1951 the US military used napalm bombs, also banned under international law. Soldiers who survived them suffered great pain and terrible burns. Other women were children of seven or eight during the war. One mentioned that the US dropped 400,000 bombs on Pyongyang alone, a city of 428,00 people at the time – almost one bomb for every person living there. Her family’s house was reduced to ashes in what she described as a “sea of blood and flames”. Another woman lost both her hands when US soldiers shot her wrists as she was trying to escape from her home village into the mountains. We also heard from scholars who spoke of the joint military exercises conducted by the US and South Korean forces every year, as well as the effects of economic sanctions – first imposed by the United States in 1950 – especially on women and children’s lives.
We ended this intense morning session with a Jogakbo ceremony. Jogakbo (patchwork) is a traditional Korean women’s art form. There were four sections: one sewn by North Korean women, another by South Korean women, a third by women from the Korean diaspora, and the last by the international group. We sewed the pieces together to symbolize our responsibility and commitment to stitch Korea back together. The North Korean women started to sing “Our Hope for Reunification,” a song well known in the North and South. Our delegation had been practicing it, so we sang too and shared tears and hugs that went beyond words. In the afternoon members of the international delegation talked about women’s work for peace and disarmament in their countries. The speakers were Suzuyo Takazato (Okinawa), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland), Patricia Guerrero (Colombia) and Medea Benjamin (continental United States).
On May 23, our hosts organized a launch ceremony for our peace walk, or as they called it, “The International Women’s Grand March for Peace and Reunification of Korea”. This started at the Reunification Monument on the south side of Pyongyang, a soaring white arch with two Korean women holding up one Korea. There were speeches; three members of our delegation read a joint Declaration, crafted collaboratively by women in North and South Korea and us. Then a women’s marching band led the way down the wide boulevard. They wore trim white jackets, short skirts, and a tee shirt showing one Korea. We wore white, the color of mourning, together with scarves inspired by traditional striped fabric, popular on both sides of the DMZ. We were joined by a North Korean women’s delegation wearing dark blue and white dresses, and flanked by some 5,000 women in colorful traditional dresses, who cheered us on and chanted “Jaju Tongil” (reunification on our own terms). Coleen Baik showed us gathering via Periscope.
After maybe a kilometer we got back into our buses for Kaesong, an ancient city ten kilometers (six miles) north of the DMZ. This is the site of the Kaesong industrial park, a joint venture between the two states. A historic summit in 2000 between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il paved the way for joint economic and humanitarian initiatives, including brief reunions between family members separated since the war, as well as the industrial park. In 2013, 123 South Korean companies employed approximately 53,000 North Korean workers and 800 South Korean staff at Kaesong. The companies pay lower wages than in South Korea while employing educated people who are fluent in Korean; for North Korea it is an important source of foreign currency. This initiative is affected by the volatile political situation and fluctuating tensions between the two governments, but its existence shows that the border is not completely sealed.
On the morning of May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, we marched through the main street in Kaesong with another North Korean women’s delegation, and some 2,000 members of the Democratic Women’s Union cheering us on. This was a Sunday, so people were home and leaned out of their windows and balconies to wave and smile – a moving sign of spontaneous support in an otherwise very choreographed situation.
We’d hoped to cross the DMZ at Panmunjom, the place where the Armistice Agreement was signed. The South Korean government would not agree to this, but we visited the old, low-ceilinged building, full of historic significance, and now a museum on the North side. We made our own ceremony there. We sang about peace and reunification, unfurled the stitched-together quilt, read our Declaration, and flashed peace signs across to the Freedom House, the South Korean building on the other side.
We crossed the border at Kaesong, as agreed by both governments. We got our bags out of the buses and said tearful goodbyes to our North Korean hosts. We went through the recently built immigration and customs hall that serves the industrial zone and boarded a South Korean bus, which North Korean authorities had allowed to come to collect us. As the bus pulled away we could see our hosts standing side by side across the road, waving us off. As foreigners, we could cross this border but they cannot.
A short drive brought us to Dorasan station, the South Korean immigration and customs area. As we cleared customs, our luggage was searched for goods purchased in North Korea. One member of the group had a book on the North Korean leader confiscated. Four women were given written notice that foreigners must abide by the Constitution and are “prohibited from engaging in political activities” including “unification policies, foreign relations, etc.” or “subject to deportation.” A huge crowd of reporters lay in wait, some of them only interested in challenging us about North Korea’s human rights record. Indeed, critics dismissed us as “pro-North” –especially Christine Ahn who has been red-baited for years. Gloria Steinem, Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire made strong statements about what we’d accomplished on this journey, which many people had said was impossible, and affirmed the importance of communication and dialogue in resolving the current dangerous standoff between North and South.
Our next stop was Paju where we joined nearly 2,000 South Koreans who’d walked along the south side of the DMZ. Detractors protested our presence, with signs saying “Go To Hell”, or “Go Back to North Korea”. We heard that 1,000 riot police had been called out to protect us from potential violence. We walked for the last kilometer to a peace rally in a park. Then to Seoul, for a reception with the South Korean organizing committee, which included local groups such as the Gyeonggi Women’s Network, Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, and Iftopia as well as several national organizations: Women Making Peace, YWCA of Korea, Korea Women’s Association United, and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. The final event was a peace symposium at Seoul City Hall the following day, where Mayor Park Won Soon welcomed us – in contrast to the 30-or-so detractors protesting outside.
At the symposium we learned more about the history of the reunification movement, and the important role that international women can play to help break the long impasse. It was wonderful to meet several women who’ve been involved in our International Network. Ahn Jeong Ae, who attended international meetings in Guam and Puerto Rico, chaired the symposium on behalf of Women Making Peace, and Elli Kim moderated one of the panels.
We were urged by people on both sides to continue this bridge-building effort, with several offering suggestions for “next time”. There’s a great deal to absorb from this first step in order to work more effectively in this highly polarized situation where, if you’re not on one side it’s assumed you must be on the other. I hope we can move beyond the scripted conversations and gather more allies—in Korea, the United States, and around the world—who can imagine a de-militarized future for Korea and who will help to bring it into being.
For more information see https://www.womencrossdmz.org