Women cross the DMZ

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Women cross the DMZ

The recent Women’s Walk for Peace - or Women Cross DMZ - stirred a surprising amount of controversy in both the United States and Korea. Critics argued that the group was naive or worse. One prominent human rights activist in the U.S. labeled them “useful idiots,” mere tools in Pyongyang’s propaganda wars. Critics focused particular attention on the myriad ways the North Korean regime has violated women’s rights, including both at home and in the festering refugee problem in China.

Is the criticism justified? For those who did not focus on the march, it is worth introducing a few of the dramatis personae, as these women have hundreds of years of activism among them. In addition to Gloria Steinem - a pioneering feminist in the United States - the group included two Nobel laureates with experience in conflict zones: Mairead Maguire from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia. But the team was deep throughout, ranging from an American soldier with experience in a number of combat zones, to a prominent Mexican human rights activist, to a former Philippine congresswoman. Would a similarly prominent group of men have received the same criticism of naivete?

Possible sexism aside, the march did yield a number of disappointments. Some of these reflect as much on North Korea as the participants, however. It is impossible for any prominent person visiting Pyongyang to control the domestic message, and the North Korean press took predictable liberties.

It attributed remarks to the group about Japanese and American imperialism that almost certainly emanated from the officials who led the delegation of North Korean women, the real pawns in this drama.

But the problem with messaging was not only in North Korea. The group applauded its innovative use of live social media, but the output was disappointing. To my knowledge, we still don’t have texts of the speeches that were delivered and thus a sense of what messages were actually carried. Even when the “march” had concluded - after being shunted from Panmunjon to Dorason and traveling by bus - it was hard to find the group’s final declaration.

That declaration reflected some particular prescriptions favored by one of the march’s organizers - American activist Christine Ahn - that don’t reflect well the current state of diplomatic play. Everyone is for peace; who is not? But that does not mean that going directly to the negotiation of a peace regime is a good idea if North Korea refuses to return to the six-party talks and to address concerns about its nuclear and missile programs.

The final declaration of the group also suggested that sanctions that are hurting the North Korean people should be lifted. But sanctions have been designed to leave humanitarian assistance in place. In any case, the welfare of the North Korean people is a result of the regime’s economic follies, not the international community. Sanctions have been imposed by broad multilateral coalitions through the United Nations - including Russia and China - because of the country’s nuclear and missile tests.

However, the group also did carry some messages that could provide a useful focal point for the group’s work going forward. The failure of North Korea to address the simple issue of family reunions is one of the most shameful aspects of the country’s behavior. The group rightly stated - and should continue to state loudly - that reunions can and should begin immediately.

But there is a final intangible bet that the march placed: that introducing these accomplished women to their North Korean counterparts - even if officials - might in itself be eye-opening. Whether you favor a softer or harder line vis-a-vis North Korea, it is not clear why more human contact is risky for our side; indeed, the risk would seem to fall largely on North Korean.

It was thus particularly disappointing to hear South Korean opponents of the march claim that they should not be allowed to repeat it. Protesting the march - and North Korean human rights abuses - is perfectly legitimate. But since when does a free society tell people they can’t speak their mind?

The reaction to the march was out of proportion to its likely effect one way or the other. But whatever we think of the views of the march’s organizers, we should start by acknowledging that nothing else seems to be working at the moment. My mantra with respect to North Korea is that regardless of the current state of official policy, we should “get people in and get people out.” The march accomplished this objective, even if it is unlikely to change much in the North. My modest proposal for the next march: let the North Korean women come south.

*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard
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