On May 24, 2015, which is International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, 30 women peacemakers including Mairead Maguire from 12 countries plan to walk across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. This will be an important first step in establishing a peace process and supporting Koreans who are working towards reconciliation and hoping to reunite their families.
Some of the women who will be participating in this historic walk are Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, feminist author Gloria Steinem, retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright, Suzuyo Takazato from Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, and American filmmaker Abigail Disney.
Last week, the government of North Korea agreed to support the walk, but officials from South Korea have yet to voice a decision. The United Nations Command at the DMZ has said it will facilitate the crossing once the South Korean government gives its approval.
In many countries around the world, women are walking and calling for demilitarization and an end to war. As the DMZ is the most highly militarized border in the world, women peacemakers believe it is only right that they should walk there in solidarity with their Korean sisters, who want to see an end to the 70-year-old conflict and reunite millions of Korean families.
Seventy years ago, as the Cold War was being waged, the United States drew a line across the 38th parallel – later with the former Soviet Union’s agreement – dividing an ancient country that had just suffered 35 years of Japanese colonial occupation. Koreans had no desire for their country to be divided, but had no say in the matter. Now, seven decades later, the conflict on the Korean peninsula threatens peace in the Asia Pacific and throughout the world.
In Korean culture, family relations are deeply important, and millions of families have been painfully separated for 70 years. Although there was a period of reconciliation during the Sunshine Policy years between the two Korean governments in which many families had the joy of reunion, the vast majority of families remain separated. Many elders have sadly died without ever seeing their families reunited.
North Korea’s economy has also suffered greatly due to Western sanctions and isolationist policies. While the country has come a long way since the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands – and possibly even millions – died from famine, many people are still very poor and lack the basics for survival.
During a visit to Seoul in 2007, an aid worker told me that most people in South Korea would love to pack their car with food and drive an hour up the road into North Korea to help their Korean brothers and sisters if the governments would agree to open the DMZ and let them cross over to see each other.
The DMZ, with its barbed wire, armed soldiers on both sides, and thousands of explosive landmines, is a tragic physical manifestation of how much the Korean people have suffered and lost in war. Yet, from all my encounters with the Korean people, it seems all they wish for is to be reconciled and live in peace with each other.
On May 24, we want to walk for peace in North and South Korea, and hope that all governments will support our crossing of the DMZ, recognizing that we are doing this because we care for our Korean brothers and sisters. We want to plant a seed showing that Koreans, too, should be free to cross the DMZ in their work towards reconciliation, putting an end to the division and fear that keep them in a state of war.