In the end, the march across a demilitarised zone strewn with more than a million land mines lacked a little of the drama that Gloria Steinem and her group of “citizen diplomats” may have hoped for.
The “WomenCrossDMZ” team, marching for peace across one of the world’s most dangerous territories, hardly set any precedents by entering South Korea by bus on a well-travelled road through the DMZ. Indeed, they were processed through South Korean immigration like ordinary tourists.
But the feminist icon and activist Ms Steinem, confronted by a phalanx of sometimes sceptical journalists, said the 30 women had “accomplished what no one said could be done – we were able to be citizen diplomats”.
Effervescent and ebullient at 81, Ms Steinem did the talking for the group as they huddled in South Korea’s immigration transit centre. They had nothing but superlatives for “all that we accomplished”. She said they had had “frank conversations” with North Korean women, away from officials; that they had broken through “artificial barriers”.
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. Befitting the occasion, they all were dressed in white with rainbow-coloured scarves and shawls symbolising their search for peace. Ms Steinem and the two Nobel peace prize laureates in the group, Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, were the only ones authorised to speak to the media after arriving in South Korea.
Ms Steinem has been an outspoken champion of womens’ rights since the late 1960s. She helped create the magazines New York and Ms. and helped form the US National Women’s Political Caucus.
Some of her colleagues shrank back, avoiding mention of their disappointment over having to enter via the western corridor beside an unused rail line, past the Korean Economic Complex just inside North Korea. Scores of South Koreans travel every day to the complex, boarding buses and vans at the same transit centre, heading for jobs at more than 100 South Korean factories employing upwards of 50,000 North Koreans.
The women had wanted to go through Panmunjom, several miles to the east, where the Korean War truce was signed in July 1953, but the United Nations Command, dominated by the US and South Korea, turned down that request. Instead, the women were met by UN officials as they crossed the North-South line in the middle of the two-mile-wide DMZ and were able to walk past the high wire gate on the southern side to the immigration centre.
The most disappointed, no doubt, was Christine Ahn, the Korean-American organiser of the journey, who has come under heavy criticism after she was quoted as praising Kim Il-sung, the long-time North Korean leader and founder of the dynasty now led by his grandson, Kim Jong-un.
Ms Ahn, a long-time activist on behalf of North Korea, hung back, just another face in the group of women, refusing to comment other than to say she had been misquoted and would have nothing to say.
Ms Steinem, however, came to her colleague’s rescue, saying she had been “a hero” and that the quote attributed to her was “inaccurate.”
“Just cut it out,” she lectured the journalists with a wry smile. Whatever doubts some of the women may have harboured, Ms Steinem, Ms Gbowee and Ms Maguire were all totally upbeat about what they had seen and heard during five days in North Korea. “We have had a wonderful visit in North Korea,” Ms Maguire said. “The saddest thing was leaving the men and women in North Korea and having to say good-bye to them.”
She called repeatedly for a peace treaty to replace the Korean War truce signed in 1953 – a major demand from North Korea that Pyongyang couples with an end to sanctions imposed after North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and the withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.
Ms Gbowee appeared relieved and overjoyed to have made it across the DMZ. “This has been an incredible journey,” she said. “We didn’t think it would be possible to cross the DMZ. We’ve done it. We had conversations. We were able to observe the life of women in North Korea.” And, “most important for anyone,” she said, “we came to end the war”.
How much they were actually able to do and see, though, was open to question. North Korean state television showed them visiting handicraft factories and the boyhood home of Kim Il-sung – standard stops on a tightly controlled tourist route. Indeed, the whole mission seemed to have been highly orchestrated on both sides of the DMZ.
Although the women could not actually walk from North to South Korea as they had hoped, they went on brief “walks for peace” in Pyongyang on Saturday and again after leaving the transit zone and going by bus to the Tongil or Unification Bridge – the final barrier to ordinary South Koreans. Getting off at the bridge, they trooped nearly two kilometres to a peace park at Imjin Gak, a tourist area south of the Imjin River that flows from North Korea.
As they walked, however, the women were blissfully unaware of the shrill protests staged by demonstrators who had been waiting for them in the hot sun all day. Hundreds of policemen barred the protesters from getting anywhere near the women, who were ushered on to one side of a large open-air stage at the peace park.
If they had been able to see the protesters, they would have seen signs in English saying, “Return to” – with an image of the North Korean flag – and “Executioner” – with an image of Kim Jong-un. “Don’t deceive the world,” said another sign. “You are unqualified.”
A conservative American activist, Lawrence Peck, lectured the protesters in English, interpreted into Korean. “They come from groups in the US who favour and support the North,” he said. “They refuse to engage in criticism of the North Korean regime.”
Ms Maguire had quite a different perspective. “We are international peace activists,” she said. “We are pro-peace for North Korea, pro-peace for South Korea.”
Whatever the naysayers might think, Ms Steinem remained confident. “It’s clear what we have accomplished. These objections will go away,” she said.
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