What do Gloria Steinem and her supporters hope to achieve with a “peace walk” across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the isolated, totalitarian North Korea and South Korea--and will they address the human rights abuses perpetrated by the North?
The Hermit Kingdom has greenlit the controversial walk, scheduled for May 24—the International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament--perhaps because of the perceived global PR benefits of being signed up.
Led by feminist icon Steinem and Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, the group is calling for reunification of the two Koreas. Some 30 women will march from Pyongyang to Seoul as a “symbolic act of peace,” according to the group’s website.
Despite its name, the DMZ is the world’s most fortified, and perilous, border, policed by hundreds of thousands of soldiers on either side.
Of the 25,000 people who have defected from North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, most have fled the country through China or Southeast Asia. Crossing over the DMZ is a death wish for anyone trying to escape the Hermit Kingdom.
The aim of the group sounds venerable: indeed women have helped put an end to violent conflict throughout history.
But it’s strange that this group of women has so far been mum on the violence occurring at the hands of the Kim regime in North Korea: executions, rape, forced starvation, and enslavement, according to a 2014 United Nations report on North Korea’s human rights abuses.
Instead, they are calling on the UN to broker a peace treaty between the North and South, and asking the U.S. to lift sanctions against the North.
Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, both Nobel Peace Prize recipients, will join Ahn and Steinem in their trek from Pyongyang to Seoul.
The group plans to hold symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul where they will “listen to Korean women and share our experiences and ideas of mobilizing women to bring an end to violent conflict,” according to its website.
One might expect that Steinem, one of the most vocal feminist advocates in the ‘70s, would call out the regime’s brutal treatment of women.
But so far, her statements about the planned peace walk have been decidedly anodyne. “It’s hard to imagine any more physical symbol of the insanity of dividing human beings,” she said at a press conference last month announcing the walk.
Through a spokesperson, Steinem declined to comment.
Ahn, meanwhile, visited Pyongyang last week, where she met with the Overseas Korean Committee and Democratic Women’s Union.
“I wish I knew how the ultimate decision was made, but at this point I’m just relieved that at least we have Pyongyang’s cooperation and support,” she told The Guardian, acknowledging that these groups have no political power. Indeed, they are widely believed to be propaganda machines.
After agreeing to an interview by email on Tuesday, Ahn declined to answer a series of questions posed by the Daily Beast, referring a reporter to a Buzzfeed story before signing off cryptically, “Be on the right side of history!”
She did, however, dismiss charges that she is “pro-North Korea” in an interview with CNN earlier this week. “Basically that is a Cold War mentality, and that kind of framework is what has enabled Korea to remain divided. I am pro-peace. I am pro-engagement. I am pro-dialogue. I am pro-human rights,” she said.
Yet Ahn has long been uncritical of North Korea, a country that has some committed some of the worst human rights abuses on record.
In a 2003 op-ed, “Peace,” Ahn criticized U.S. military intervention in North Korea and slammed then-President George W. Bush’s depiction of North Korean founder Kim Jong Il as “an evil dictator forsaking malnourished children to stockpile nuclear weapons.”
She continued: “But is Kim Jong Il really starving his people or his the fact that the U.S. still technically at war with North Korea driving the persistence of famine?” War and [U.S.] sanctions between the two countries are “the real culprits driving hunger in North Korea,” she wrote.
It is certainly damning to accuse someone of being pro-Pyongyang, but her critics say Ahn’s body of writing speaks for itself. (Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and blogger, has catalogued much of it on his website, One Free Korea.)
These critics say only a North Korean stooge would shift blame away from the totalitarian Kim regime and onto Western powers that are allegedly thwarting “peace” in the region by imposing sanctions.
“She has a tendency to blame the U.S. and South Korea for all the problems caused by North Korea,” says Sue Mi Terry, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s East Asian Institute and former analyst on Korean issues for the CIA.
Ahn has argued that North Korea’s nuclear missile tests are a justified response to US-South Korea military exercises.
She has also insisted that starvation in North Korea is largely a byproduct of U.S. sanctions targeting North Korean weapons and the Kim regime’s luxury expenses.
While the UN estimates that the Kim regime squandered billions of dollars during the height of the great famine in the ‘90s, Ahn has never acknowledged the regime’s responsibility.
South Korea has not yet signed off on Steinem and co’s “peace walk,” though Ahn has said they will march with or without President Park's permission.
This will only alienate the South, says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty North Korea, an international NGO that works with defectors.
"The best chance of bringing North Korea into the international mainstream, for the benefit of the North Korean people and the broader region, is to bring forward the opening and normalization of North Korea as a country," Park says.
"This unfortunately is not achievable through a silver bullet peace agreement,” he adds, “but it can absolutely happen if we accelerate the economic and information changes emerging in North Korean society."
“It’s tragic that Pyongyang will allow a group of foreign women to cross the DMZ, but will not allow its own people to do the same,” says 34-year-old Hyeonseo Lee, who fled North Korea when she was 17 and currently lives in Seoul.
“All of us defectors are heartbroken that we cannot visit our hometown or meet our loved ones. So I hope these 30 brave women will ask the North Korean leadership to allow North Koreans to cross the DMZ as well.”
Terry noted the irony of Steinem supporting a group that has been so uncritical of North Korea, one of the most repressive countries on the planet, and an egregious human rights violator.
“Its treatment of women, particularly repatriated female defectors, is hideous, as noted by the UN in recent years,” Terry says. “I just hope that if Ms. Steinem and this group of prominent women decide to go through with this walk, it is to highlight human rights abuses that are taking place in North Korea, not to further blame the U.S. and South Korea for the myriad problems created by the North Korean regime, as Ms. Ahn has done before.”