We Went to the DMZ with Gloria Steinem to Call for an End to the Korean War

Our delegation of women leaders from the United States, South Korea, and Japan — including feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem — just returned from South Korea, where we attended the DMZ peace forum, visited the DMZ, and demanded an end to the Korean War and women’s inclusion in the peace process outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

We began our trip with a tour of the DMZ — the so-called “demilitarized zone” — that separates North and South Korea. In reality, this narrow strip of land has one of the highest concentrations of landmines on earth; is flanked by barbed wire, explosives, and armed soldiers on both sides; and divides tens of thousands of families. Among the attendees were Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and foremost expert on North Korea’s nuclear program. 

Christine Ahn, Gloria Steinem, and Siegfried Hecker meet with representatives of the local government at Imjingak near the DMZ. Photo by Jean Chung
Gyeonggi Province’s Vice Governor for Peace, Lee Hwa-young, speaks to the international attendees of the DMZ peace forum. To his right is Chung Dong Chae, chief executive officer of the Let’s DMZ organizing committee. Photo by Jean Chung

Our first stop was Imjingak Resort, located just 7 km from the Military Demarcation Line — the actual line dividing the two countries, which is surrounded by the DMZ — where we met with officials from the local government. A barbed-wire fence has become a living memorial to loved ones in North Korea. Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ and international coordinator of Korea Peace Now!, and Gloria Steinem wrote their own message of peace and tied it among the thousands of ribbons adorning the fence. Waving in the wind, the ribbons are a heartbreaking and sobering reminder of the painful division caused by the ongoing war. 

Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem shared a message that read: “Women Cross the DMZ — for peace!!” Photo by Jean Chung

Next we traveled to Camp Greaves, a former U.S. military base that was turned over to the Korean government in 2007 and is now the site of a youth hostel and a museum. Displayed inside the Quonset huts dotting the hillsides are remnants and reminders of the human impact of this long war — for example, photos of thriving communities in Pyongyang before the war, portraits of Korean War orphans, recreated military quarters, and factoids on the legacy of the war: 

  • 25,288: Number of days since the outbreak of the Korean War, aka “The War That Never Ends”
  • 132,124: Number of separated family members in South Korea
  • 990,968: Number of South Korean civilian casualties during the Korean War
International attendees of the DMZ peace forum participate in a tour of the DMZ, arranged by conference organizers. Photo by Jean Chung

For our last stop, we traveled past the barbed wire to go inside the DMZ to Daeseong. As part of the Armistice Agreement that temporarily halted the Korean War, two villages — one in South Korea and one in North Korea — were allowed to remain inside this heavily fortified area. Fewer than 200 people live in Daeseong today, and they must pass through military checkpoints whenever they want to leave and return. They must also adhere to a strict curfew. At a lookout point inside this eerily peaceful village, binoculars allow visitors to look northward, where people can be seen riding bicycles and motorbikes through the fields. 

Members of the Korea Peace Now! delegation with Siegfried Hecker at Daeseong Village inside the DMZ. The flagpole behind them is in North Korea. Photo courtesy of Christine Ahn

The following day was the start of the DMZ peace forum organized by the Gyeonggi Research Institute in Goyang City. Hundreds of people attended the conference, and many more watched via ample coverage by the South Korean media. In the morning, Gloria Steinem delivered one of three keynote speeches. 

“The United States must respect the wishes of the Korean people and their governments by negotiating a peace agreement, which would take the threat of war off the table and improve the security of Koreans, Americans and the world. It’s time to declare an end to the Korean War and replace the temporary Armistice with a peace agreement.”

— Gloria Steinem at the DMZ peace forum
Gloria Steinem delivered her keynote speech to hundreds of participants at the DMZ peace forum. Photo by Jean Chung
Gloria Steinem and fellow keynote speakers Phan Thi Kim Phúc (“Napalm girl”) and Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung (이재명 경기도지사). Photo by Jean Chung

That afternoon, members of the Korea Peace Now! delegation participated in a session titled “Women Crossing Borders: From the DMZ to the women’s peace movement.” The speakers included Christine Ahn (Women Cross DMZ), Jung-soo Kim (Women Making Peace), Kozue Akibayashi (Doshisha University/WILPF), Gloria Steinem, Hyun Lee (Women Cross DMZ), and Jung-ah Lee (Gyeonggi Women’s Association). We discussed the gender implications of the unresolved war and how women’s inclusion is vital for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. We also shared the goals of our Korea Peace Now! campaign:

  • A formal ending of the Korean War, a Korea peace agreement, and normalized relations.
  • Tangible de-militarization: denuclearization, landmines, reduction of bases/troops.
  • Women’s leadership and gender-based analysis (government and civil society) in peace processes.
  • Lift sanctions against North Korea, especially those impacting humanitarian conditions.
  • Redefine security from national security based on war and militarism to a feminist understanding of security centered on basic human needs and ecological sustainability. 
Hyun Lee of Women Cross DMZ/Korea Peace Now! speaks about the campaign’s efforts to pass H.Res. 152, a U.S. Congressional resolution calling for an end to the Korean War. Photo by Jean Chung
Participants at Korea Peace Now!’s session on women’s involvement in the Korea peace process. Photo by Jean Chung

The next day we traveled to Seoul to deliver a message of peace across from the U.S. Embassy. We demanded that the United States must get out of the way of inter-Korean cooperation, move forward on ending the war, and work toward a peace agreement. And for the Korea peace process to be successful, women must be involved.

Members of Korea Peace Now! demand that the U.S. end the Korean War outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Photo by Jean Chung

“Seventy years later, the Korean War has not ended, and despite the efforts of Korean peoples’ movements and our governments — including two signed agreements in Panmunjom and Pyongyang declaring an end to the Korean War — we still do not have peace,” said Mimi Han, an Executive Board Member of The National YWCA of Korea. “We want peace but we cannot do it. We need approval. We are here to say, enough is enough.” 

“I am one of the many Japanese people who hope for amicable relations between Japan and the Koreas,” said Kozue Akibayashi, the former international president of WILPF and a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. “The ongoing Korean War is used by the Japanese government to justify militarization of Okinawa, in Japan, and other places. I am here to say, no more.”

Kozue Akibayashi discusses the need for Japan to be active in ending the Korean War. Photo by Jean Chung

“Women are disproportionately impacted by war,” said Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ. “Women have endured sexual violence at the hands of soldiers, including in South Korea around U.S. military ‘camptowns.’ And due to crushing sanctions, North Korean women are unable to access the healthcare, food, and jobs they need to survive…. We can’t on one hand call for greater economic freedom for women as key to advancing human rights, while also supporting policies that directly harm North Korean women.” 

“…[R]ight now, there are very few women involved in the official Korea peace process,” said Gloria Steinem. “Yet there are tens of thousands of women — here on the peninsula and around the world — who are already working together to support this historic peace process. We know that unless we act, from taking to the streets to lobbying members of Congress and ourselves crossing the DMZ, there will be no durable, lasting peace. Peace is like a tree. It does not grow from the top down, it grows from the bottom up.”

We ended the day with a sit-down dinner featuring a who’s-who of South Korean women leaders who have long been active in calling for peace. Among the attendees were:

  • Han Young Soo (President of the National YWCA of Korea)
  • Lee Hyun Sook (Chairperson of Central Committee, National Council of Unification Education)
  • Chung Hyun Baek (Former Minister, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family)
  • Moon Mi Ran (Assistant Mayor, Women and Family Affairs, Seoul Metropolitan Government)
  • Kwon In Sook (Director, Korea Women’s Development Institute)
  • Lee Jae Jung (Member of National Assembly, Democratic Party of Korea)
  • Chang Young Hee (Democratic Party of Korea)
  • Choi Susannah (Director, National YWCA of Korea)
Members of Korea Peace Now! and some of the inspiring leaders of the peace movement in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Christine Ahn

It was an evening of celebration and solidarity, as well as a recognition of how far we’ve come and how much more we still need to accomplish. But together, it felt like we could take on the world.

Gloria Steinem being interviewed by CNN. Photo by Jean Chung

Here is some media coverage of our trip:

CNN: Gloria Steinem and her push to end the Korean War

CNN.com: Feminist icon Gloria Steinem urges United States to end Korean War

YTN News:

Hankyoreh: DMZ Forum 2019 kicks off in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province

Yonhap News: 여성평화운동네트워크 “美, 남북협력 막지말고 평화협정 해야”

Tongil News: “여성이 참여할 때 평화협정 가능성 높아질 것”

WomanEconomy.kr: “미국, 한국 국민과 정부의 염원 존중해 평화협정 협상에 나서야”

WomenNews.co.kr: 글로리아 스타이넘 등 세계 여성 평화활동가들, 한반도 평화 위해 한국 찾는다 ; 한·미·일 여성 평화운동가들 “미국, 남북 협력 막지 말고 평화협정 해야”

Women’s Media Center: From Korea, Steinem calls for women to be central to peace talks

Medium: A Feminist Path to Peace on the Korean Peninsula

Nikkei Asian Review: Korean peace process must include women to be truly sustainable