World

What Gloria Steinem Is Trying To Accomplish By Walking From South Korea To North Korea

CREDIT: AP

Gloria Steinem, right, and Christine Ahn, left, listen during a United Nations news conference announcing plans for a rare and risky women's walk across the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to call for reunification.

Thirty women including famed American feminist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Laureates are planning to walk around the highly guarded strip of land that separates North and South Korea.

“Our hope is to cross the 2-mile wide De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates millions of Korean families as a symbolic act of peace,” A statement on the Women Crossing DMZ website said. “The unresolved Korean conflict gives all governments in the region justification to further militarize and prepare for war, depriving funds for schools, hospitals, and the welfare of the people and the environment. That’s why women are walking for peace, to reunite families, and end the state of war in Korea.”

The group’s march will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the division between the two countries. It hopes to hold international peace symposiums in the capitals of both countries to “listen to Korean women and share our experiences and ideas of mobilizing women to bring an end to violent conflict.”

“It’s hard to imagine any more physical symbol of the insanity of dividing human beings,” Steinem, a longtime women’s rights advocate said. “To me, to walk across it has huge, huge, huge importance.”

Steinem added that she was moved to join the group of women by her own travels to South Korea which showed her the almost impermeable divide between the countries, and between families.

According to the site, Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, both of whom are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, will join in the walk.

“The crossing might seem preposterous to some,” Ju Hui Judy Han, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto said in an interview with ThinkProgress, but added that “much could be gained from encouraging small, incremental, non-governmental, and far-sighted efforts to foster communication and bridge building.”

It’s not an entirely novel idea. The group says that five New Zealanders crossed the DMZ on motorbikes in 2013, and that more than 30 Korean-Russians did so by motorcade last year. Both of those groups were able to obtain permission from either side of the border. Of course, the journey is far more difficult for North Koreans.

Some 25,000 people have defected from North Korea since the end of the Korean War, but most of them have followed routes through China or Southeast Asia because of the intense fortifications around the DMZ.

Those who flee the brutal hardships of life in leave North Korea face life imprisonment or even death if they are caught. They are not necessarily safe once they make it out, because countries like China and Laos repatriate them – despite the punishments that await them back in their home country. And it’s not just the defectors who face these grave risks, but their families too.

Ji-min Kang knows this reality well. He fled North Korea in 2005, and has avoided communicating with his father in Pyongyang for fear that his family will be punished for his defection.

Although he believes the situation is improving for the family of defectors, Ji-min Kang wrote in a blog post that the government has, in the past, “tried to send a warning by sending defectors’ entire families to prison camps, and they’ve also taken repressive measures to create fear among the general public.”

Adam Cathcart, a lecturer of Chinese History and North Korea watcher said that denizens of either country interact more than most people would think given the hostilities between their governments. “South and North Korean businessmen (yes, the latter do exist) can and do rub shoulders in China, and there are financial flows between the two countries, if not much legal trade,” he wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “The idea that only a handful of well-meaning activists can change the status quo is nice, but somewhat misplaced — change in contact between the Koreas is happening regularly, if quite slowly and under extremely monitored conditions of which North Korea largely controls the pace.”

Due to the tight control North Korea maintains on visitors, the group is seeking its permission to make the walk across the DMZ. In a promising sign, one North Korean official said the visit was “under discussion in my capital.” Organizers say that South Korean officials have not yet responded to the group about its request.

“I think this is a brilliant idea,” Namhee Lee of the University of California, Los Angeles said. The professor of modern Korean history told ThinkProgress. “While it may not achieve anything, it brings attention of the world (and the participants themselves) to the terrible cost that both [North and South] Koreans have to bear in maintaining the DMZ and the division.”

Tensions between the two countries often come to a head in the DMZ as they did last November when South Korean troops fired warning shots at North Korean soldiers who moved in on the border.

Both countries have used missile tests and military brinkmanship to keep the other in check since the Korean War ended in an armistance more than 60 years ago.

As recently as last week, North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea just ahead of annual military exercises coordinated by South Korea and the United States. As part of another test in February, North Korea launched five missiles. The autocratic country has for years met South Korean-U.S. drills with protracted tests and hostilities of its own.

“Given the fact that both Koreas have been extremely active already this year in military drills, it’s hard to see how such an activity is going to be the longed-for game changer,” Adam Cathcart said.

He said that neither country seems disposed to easing tensions, but added that that doesn’t necessarily mean the upcoming walk will fall flat.

“Maybe these very clever activists will manage to not get arrested on either side of the divide and find out something about North Korea that we didn’t know already,” he wrote.