Last fall, I woke up in the middle of the night, and instead of continuing to toss and turn, I decided to switch on my computer. On the homepage of The New York Times read the headline, “North Korea Opens Dam Flow, Sweeping Away 6 in the South.” North Korea had lifted the floodgates of a dam on the Imjin River, sending a tidal wave south and killing six South Koreans, including an 8-year-old boy.
The water level had doubled, which meant North Korea’s farms could flood and wipe out the season’s harvest. To avert this perilous situation, North Korea allegedly released the water without any advance notice.
This is so ridiculous, I thought to myself. Why can’t these two countries—that speak the same language, eat the same food, have family in common, and share over two millennia of history—just communicate? Why couldn’t North Korean leader Kim Jong Il just pick up the phone and give South Korean leader Lee Myung Bak a heads up? Because both Koreas are deeply patriarchal, heavily militarized, and still at war.
June 25th marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, a three-year war that claimed the lives of three million Korean civilians and 1.2 million combatants. Today it is called the “Forgotten War,” but the carnage and destruction it wreaked has left deep wounds on the Korean people.
The Korean War was among the most vicious: napalm was first used on a civilian population in this war (and far more than during the Vietnam War); more bombs were dropped in Korea than on all of Europe during WWII; and an atomic bomb was threatened by President Truman. Within three months of the war, 57,000 Korean children were missing and half a million homes were damaged or destroyed.
One year into the war, U.S. Major General Emmett O’Donnell, Jr. testified before the Senate, “I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name There were no more targets in Korea.”
The Korean War came to an unresolved end on July 27, 1953 with a temporary armistice signed by the United States, North Korea, and China. South Korea was not a signatory because it had ceded military power to General Douglas Macarthur. Sixty years later, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) remains the world’s most heavily militarized border in the world with 1.2 million landmines with South Korean, North Korean, and U.S. troops poised for war.
The latest episode of brinkmanship over the sunken South Korean warship, the Cheonan, exemplifies how quickly the cold war could transition to a hot war. All three governments spend exorbitant amounts on building up their militaries and weaponry, which drains money away for vital investments in the health and welfare of the people.
At the end of the Korean War, hundreds of thousands of Koreans found themselves on the opposite side of the 38th parallel—and far away from their relatives. An estimated 2 million children had been displaced. Yet the line had been drawn with no prospects for peace or reunification. Separated families remained divided without any hope for reunification with their families.
Finally, in 2000, the two Korean leaders, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il, signed the June 15 Declaration which set the two countries on a path towards gradual reunification, which included economic integration, family reunification, and social and cultural exchanges. By 2006, over 10,000 Koreans had social and cultural exchanges in the North, 660 separated families reunited in person, and 800 met via webcast. One million South Korean tourists had visited Mt. Kumgang resort in the north.
But all of this came to a screeching halt in 2007 with the election of conservative South Korean president Lee Myung Bak, who vowed to punish North Korea by cutting humanitarian aid and isolating their neighbor. Last fall, family reunifications temporarily resumed, but only 100 families were able to meet briefly at a resort in North Korea. Yet there are thousands waiting to be selected to be able to reunite with their families, and many are dying without being able to return to their hometown or say farewell to their siblings or children. One elderly South Korean man who did not make the selective list of families to be reunited committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway train in Seoul.
After being thoroughly depressed about the situation of the two Koreas, I finally fell back to sleep. And then I had the most vivid dream, which I’ve held onto as hope for the future of a united Korea. In my dream, I was wading in a river alongside other Koreans. It was before the break of dawn and we were anxiously waiting for Koreans from the north. And just over the crest of the horizon, a light glowed. It was people holding candles wading down the river. As the two Koreans met in the river, there was an overabundance of joy and intense embrace. But I kept going forward, up the river bypassing this frenzied scene to find the source. I came upon a ceremony of women huddled around a huge kettle stirring thick black liquid and pouring ladles of it into little pails carried by children. It was at that moment when I awoke and realized that it will take Korean women on the peninsula and throughout the Diaspora to bring about peace and reunification for Korea.
It’s been 60 years now since the Korean War began, and without a peace treaty, the threat of war constantly looms over the Korean people. But it will take more than signing a document to end the over half century of enmity and mistrust—it will take a new approach to achieving security than through military means. This is why it will take women’s leadership, because women realize that genuine security means having health, education, and freedom to live without fear and want. It’s about time Korean women start using UN Security Council Resolution 1325 to demand a seat at the peace-making table, whether in inter-Korea dialogue or multi-level talks.