Women Cross DMZ for “A Different Future, A Different Possibility for Korea”
An Interview with Christine Ahn*
By Paul Liem** | May 15, 2015
The international delegation of the Women Cross DMZ Peace Walk will cross the DMZ from the northern to the southern side of the 38th parallel in Korea at noon on May 24, 2015, KST. This interview took place on May 15, 2015 as Christine Ahn was preparing to depart for Beijing, en route to Pyongyang. On May 22, 2015, Ahn filed the following update with KPI.
Update: On May 22, 2015 the International Delegation agreed by consensus to cross at Kaesong following the news from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that the Korean People’s Army received an official reply from the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea (ROK) that if we were to cross at Panmunjom we would be violating the Armistice Agreement. We were also told that the United Nations Command (UNC) communicated across Panmunjom by loudspeaker that we would need UN Security Council approval to cross at Panmunjom. Given how sensitive the situation is at the DMZ and that any misstep could lead to a full-scale war, we feel we have made the right choice to cross at Panmunjom. We want both Korean governments to give their support for our walk, and at this juncture in this political moment, this is where the two Koreas are at. But the incredibly wonderful news is that we have bought one-way tickets to Pyongyang and will be crossing the 38th parallel, the artificial division that is the source of so much suffering. As Korean women, north and south, cannot cross, we are crossing for them, calling for an end to this unresolved Korean War and giving light to a new possibility for Korea.
[Liem – May 15, 2015] Can you please give us an update on the status of the international delegation’s request to cross the DMZ and comment on the recommendation of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) that the delegation cross at Kaesong rather than Panmunjom?
[Ahn] Here is the status of all three parties, North Korea, South Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC). On May 4th North Korea’s Committee for Solidarity with the World’s People, which is our host committee, sent a letter by hand through the Red Cross to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) requesting permission to allow us to cross the DMZ by foot at Panmunjom.
The South Korean MoU just responded yesterday. The MoU advised us that, after consulting the UNC, it decided to allow us to cross the DMZ, but recommended that we cross via Kyonghui Railway, which is the railroad that runs along the road from Kaesong and not at Panmunjom, by foot.
While we’re happy to hear that the south side finally announced that we can cross the DMZ, we are disappointed in its apparent decision to deny us crossing at Panmunjom. We felt very strongly from the beginning that we are walking to end the Korean War, and we chose Panmunjom as our site because that was where the armistice agreement was signed, and it is therefore the most symbolic, living, physical manifestation of the unresolved Korean War and the division of millions of families. So we will need to discuss among the international delegates which is the right course of action for us to take. However, we did hear from the Yonhap reporter who broke the story yesterday, that when pressed, the MoU said that if the international delegates were to cross at Panmunjom we would not be arrested for illegal entry. So there’s this gray area that we need to explore.
Interestingly, the UNC officer, John Burzynski, sent me an email last week where he was starting to signal us that Panmunjom would not be an option. What he said was that Panmunjom is generally reserved for official government purposes and that Kaesong is a more appropriate route for civilian crossings. While I understand that to be the case, that is precisely why we would like to cross at Panmunjom. The good news is that he didn’t cite all the provisions of the armistice agreement which might indicate that such a crossing by civilians would not be permitted. As it stands now, the way that I see it is that we have clear permission to cross the DMZ. It’s just a question of where that will happen and, there is some room for interpretation here.
[Liem] You think the UNC would be open to allowing the crossing at Panmunjom insofar as Mr. Buzynsky didn’t cite legalities to discourage the international delegation’s plans to cross at that particular site?
[Ahn] The UNC has attempted to appear that it is neutral. They have said that when we get approval from both sides they will facilitate our crossing. So right now we don’t have a “yes” from South Korea for crossing at Panmunjom. But we don’t have a definite “no,” either. They said that if we crossed at Panmunjom we wouldn’t be arrested for illegal entry. So it’s as though we’re 75% of the way, good to go, for crossing at Panmunjom. So I think there is some room for flexibility in this case.
[Liem] Could you tell us about the meetings or conferences the international delegates will have with women in the north and south? Can you talk a little about what will take place at those gatherings?
[Ahn] There will be an international peace symposium in Pyongyang in addition to the peace walk. The theme of the conference will be the impact of war on women and women mobilizing to end war. We’ve requested that the speakers illuminate what the impact has been of the war on women and children in North Korea. We don’t yet know who they will be, but in the morning session we expect there will be up to six North Korean women giving testimony about their experiences surviving the war and its legacies, including sanctions which continue to this day. We’ve also asked that the speakers talk about the human rights issues that arise in their daily lives. We do know that we will hear from a speaker who will share the North Korean women’s experience working with South Korean women on the comfort women issue. We are looking forward to that. On the south side there will be a similar conference. We’ve really tried to make it equal, so the South Korean women will also have a series of speakers presenting on essentially the same topics.
At the conferences the international delegates will also share their experiences in organizing with women for peace in their countries. So there will be Mairead Maquire, Nobel Laureate from Ireland, Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Laureate from Liberia, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, Suzuyo Takazato from Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence and human rights attorney, Patricia Guerrero, who is coming from Columbia to name a few. So it’s an opportunity to bring the insights and experiences of these and the many other phenomenal women to Korea.
[Liem] Do you foresee at any point the possibility, maybe as a result of this peace walk, of someday a joint conference of Korean women together, from the north and south?
[Ahn] That has definitely been on the table among the international delegates. I know that we are already dreaming up lots of other possibilities for collaboration as well. So many amazing ideas have already emerged; for example, possible work on a land mines campaign. This would be a campaign to de-mine sections of the DMZ, to get government approval to allow such activities to take place. What’s so beautiful about women is how we focus on concretizing our visions. We ask what do we need to do to begin the physical work of ending this war, and making this DMZ a relic of the past. And then we start.
[Liem] Will you be taking any sort of message from women in North Korea to the women in South Korea?
[Ahn] There will be a joint declaration of our peace walk. How that has come about is very interesting. Everyone has such different concepts and even the choice of words is different among the parties. I drafted a declaration about why we’re doing this peace walk. The international delegation weighed in; South Korean women weighed in; and then we sent it to North Korea and the women there weighed in. It went through numerous iterations. In the end, the declaration as edited in English was approved by the international delegation and by the North and South Korean sides.
[Liem] Can you give an example of an issue in the declaration that was viewed differently by the three parties?
[Ahn] Well, for example, the international women felt very strongly that we could not leave out reference to human rights. As you know that has been one of the criticisms of our delegation; how we could go into a country that has gross human rights violations and not be even willing to engage or discuss about it, many have said. As you know our response, as Gloria Steinem so eloquently put it, is that that’s a “bananas” question. How could you go into a country that you’re basically, technically, at war with and start lodging accusations against them? Reagan never did that when he went to meet with Gorbachev. Nonetheless we are of course walking to improve human rights. We’re walking to reunite families and we’re walking to ensure that women are involved at all levels of the peace building process. We’re walking to end the Korean War and to replace the armistice with a peace treaty. We are walking because we believe that peace is a fundamental condition for human rights, and that the current stalemate is contributing to the worsening of human rights on both sides of the DMZ.
[Liem] How did the women in the north and south view this issue?
[Ahn] The South Korean women were a little nervous that we wanted to reference human rights in the declaration. There are many seasoned activists from the south side who have been involved in discussions with North Korean women in other contexts. Some of them have been involved since the 1990s, at the first North East Asia peace conferences. And during the sunshine policy era, the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years, there was frequent engagement and contact. From their experiences they advised us not to use the term “human rights” and other politically volatile language. However, the international delegates felt we really need to include this. I think the phrase we originally proposed was something like “whereas governments view the state of war to justify repression of human rights …” That is how we sent the document to North Korea.
I went to Pyongyang last week to make final arrangements for the logistics of our visit, and to discuss the text of the declaration. I was a bit concerned about the declaration. But when I got the document back, I couldn’t believe it. There were just three changes. And of course the human rights issue was one of them. The way that they framed it was something like “whereas a state of war and instability affect …” and then something about “sovereignty.” I can’t quite recall. But I was trying to think fast on my feet so I asked, could we change it to, and I don’t know why we didn’t do this from the get go, but I asked, could we change it to “whereas peace and engagement is an important foundation to improve human rights …” They liked that. That is the final concept that they accepted. It’s something to the effect, “whereas peace and stability are an important foundation to improve human rights….” In any case I have to say I was impressed with their flexibility and willingness to compromise.
[Liem] At this point is the text finalized and will there be a signing ceremony?
[Ahn] Yes. We will make it public when we get to Korea. It will be signed in the north and south starting with the peace rally in Pyongyang as we gather at the base of the reunification tower to begin our peace walk. There will be a short speech by Chairwoman Kim Jong Suk of the Korean Committee for the Solidarity with the World’s People. . She will give the keynote speech at this rally on behalf of the North Korean women. She will sign it, and several other North Korean women will sign as well. Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire is giving the keynote speech on behalf of the international delegation, and the rest of the international delegates will sign the document in Panmunjom. Three of the delegates will read the declaration at the rally: Gloria Steinem, Leymah Gbowee, and Liza Maza, a former Philippine congresswoman and member of Gabriella Network. Then we will begin our peace walk. In the south it will be signed by the members of the organizing committee for Women Cross DMZ.
And we’re also doing a symbolic stitching together of a traditional quilt. There are four sections being prepared; two, by international women, and Korean women of the Diaspora. The other two corners are being prepared by women in north and south Korea. We will stitch them together at the peace symposia in the north and south.
[Liem] Have you had any contact or do you have any sense of how the Obama administration is viewing the peace walk?
[Ahn] After our first press conference the U.S. State Department issued a statement warning Americans against going to North Korea. That may have been coincidence, but we were concerned that the message was being directed at us. But we don’t know. In another instance Vana Kim, who is a member of the international delegation and a U.S. citizen, visited Ambassador Mark Lippert’s office to explain the peace walk and ask for U.S. government support. His staff explained that the U.S. doesn’t endorse such civil society activities as ours. But they affirmed, generally, that the U.S. supports peace and reunification and all efforts in this direction. Naturally, we don’t have official support. But perhaps we have received some quiet support. The UNC, which agreed to facilitate our crossing, is, as you know, headed up by the U.S. Forces in Korea.
In all honesty, beyond Vana’s visit to Lippert’s office we haven’t made a tremendous effort to reach out to the Obama administration. Neither have we reached out to the leaders of North and South Korea. We view our peace walk as an act of citizen’s diplomacy, women to women, as much as possible.
[Liem] Do you plan to make any efforts to make recommendations to the State Department or congress after the peace walk?
[Ahn] Absolutely. We are planning to organize a congressional briefing on the occasion of the July 27th Armistice Day. We’re committed to seeing this through to the signing of a peace treaty. Already there are so many women who have written to us to express their desire to join the peace walk and to somehow become part of this global movement. So we hope to do lots of educational briefing for various governments. For example the Women Peace Maker Program, which designated May 24 as International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, is based in The Hague in the Netherlands. It is supporting the peace walk especially because the Netherlands was one of the countries that fought in the Korean War under the UNC. A goal of our campaign is to engage with women from all those countries that fought in the war and, in this way, create political pressure within those countries to advocate for an end to the Korean War.
[Liem] What do you think are the prospects that something could occur in this final period of the Obama Administration to bring peace to Korea?
[Ahn] It feels like it’s a great time to be doing this because President Obama has shown that diplomacy works. He has been able to cut through entrenched cold war relations with Cuba and also with Iran. We feel that ending the Korean War, along with his initiatives with Cuba and Iran, could be the tri-partite success of his foreign policy legacy.
[Liem] Wherever you cross the DMZ, whether it is Kaesong or Panmunjom, how will you feel after this long haul of organizing the peace walk?
[Ahn] It’s been incredibly emotional. I got a message yesterday from Lee Jinock, a member of the South Korean women’s organizing committee, and a longtime friend of mine. She wrote that the women of the committee are working around the clock. That they have children; they have full time careers. Everything is suffering, their families and professional lives, but it nevertheless feels good to be doing this, she wrote. They have been inspired and moved. They feel that the perspective, vision and boldness of the international women have inspired them to think about a different possibility. They’ve been in a rut, she continued, thinking that this is the status quo, and this is the way it’s always going to be. But now the women of our organizing committee see that there could be a different future, a different possibility for Korea. I feel the same way.
*Christine Ahn is a member of the Women Cross DMZ Peace Walk Organizing Committee, a columnist and organizer for peace and justice in the U.S., Korea, and Asia Pacific. She co-founded Women De-Militarize the Zone, Korea Policy Institute, and National Campaign to End the Korean War, and was Senior Policy Analyst at Global Fund for Women.
** Paul Liem is Board Chairperson of the Korea Policy Institute