Friday 22 May 2015 Nargess Tavassolian
Zone of Peace: Activists March for Reunified Korea
Earlier this year, international peace activists, including Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate from Liberia, announced plans to walk across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea on May 24, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.
An official state of war has been in place for more than 62 years on the divided Korean Peninsula. Maguire, Gbowee and others celebrated campaigners are calling for an end to the Korean War, and for the reunification of South and North Korean families. As the Women Demilaritize the Zone website explains, the walk is designed to express the campaigners’ “desire for a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that halted, but technically did not end, the Korean War, a conflict that claimed an estimated four million lives, mostly Koreans, and separated millions of families."
Othher participants in the walk include Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist who is the lead organizer of the group, American author and activist Gloria Steinem, who lost childhood friends in the Korean war, and Suzy Kim, professor of Korean history at Rutgers University.
I talked to Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee about the walk, and what they hoped it would achieve.
Can you tell me how the idea to march across the demilitarized zone came about?
The idea was originally put to me by Cora Weiss and my friend Abigail Disney. I accepted to be a part of it because I had been to South Korea over a year ago. A lot of the conversation I had with people in civil society was about how the war between the North and South had affected families. The majority spoke about the pain of separation. As a survivor of war myself, I understood and could identify with the feelings that were being expressed.
It was the idea of Christine Ahn, who is co-ordinating the peace walk. She founded an organization called Women De-militarize the Zone — people can follow the walk on May 24 on the website.
What do you aim to achieve by walking across the DMZ?
I believe the greatest achievement of the walk is the awareness and global attention that it will bring to the Korean conflict, one of the forgotten conflicts of the world. The second achievement is helping the world see that wars are not just about politics. It is about the human dimension. I think it is time for ordinary people and activists to shed a light on this conflict so that they bring to global attention the fact that North Korea is not only a place of nuclear weapons. It is also a place of people who have suffered and are suffering.
We wish to convey the message that the Korean war must end with a peace treaty; we need to act now to reunite millions of families tragically divided by manmade division. Women can and must be involved at all levels of peace-making.
What kind of challenges do you think you will face on the walk? How will you prepare yourselves?
On the DMZ peace walk, we want to build trust and friendship with each other, and make friends with people in North and South Korea during our short visit. Our challenge is to listen and give solidarity and support to all those working in civil society and who are taking part in this dialogue. We also want to listen and give support to families who have been divided for 70 years. We hope, too, that our stories, the stories of the international peacemakers, will give hope and encouragement to our sisters in Korea, hope that peace is indeed possible. Above all, we have to listen and learn.
Maybe the challenges will be arrest or security issues, but I believe whatever the risk is, it will be worth taking it. The quest for peace is a risky process. Do we sit down because of the risk? My answer is no.
Besides the organizers, who else is taking part in this walk?
Other women on the peace walk include Medea Benjamin, co- founder of Code Pink from the United States; Patricia Guerrero from the League of Displaced Women in Colombia; Ann Patterson from Northern Ireland; Abigail Disney, US filmmaker; Suzuyo Takazato from the Okinawan Women Against Military Violence group in Japan; Sung-ok Lee, from United Methodist Women in the US; Gay Dilllingham, energy advisor to former New Mexican governor Bill Richardson.
Many activists are joining us such as Abigail Disney, an American filmmaker and philanthropist who made the documentary about the work we women did in Liberia. Code Pink, a group of women activists in the US who have been advocating against war, Gloria Steinem and my co-Nobel Laureate Mairead McGuire will also be a part of it.
Is the walk open to everyone?
The North Korean authorities have limited it to 30 women and the quota has been filled. In the north, women will be able to attend a symposium, and in South Korea, women will attend a symposium and peace events. Other people will be able to follow the walk on our webpage, Facebook, and Twitter.
Have you obtained permission from the relevant authorities?
On Christmas Eve, we received a “yes” from the UN Command that they would be prepared to facilitate our plans to cross the DMZ, pending approval from South Korea, which we are still waiting for. Visa applications for the women’s delegation are currently with the North Korean government and we await their response to our request to cross the DMZ.
We have permission from some of the authorities from both South and North Korea. We are awaiting finalization on logistics and other issues.
Have you ever organized an event of this kind in the past?
In 1976, at the height of the violent conflict in North Ireland, I was co-founder of a people’s movement, which helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Since l976, I have helped organize peace walks and support delegations to many countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Argentina, Congo, and many others.
Yes. When there was war in Ivory Coast, we organized West African women to go to the capital of Nigeria, where all of the presidents of West Africa were meeting. We made an appeal to end the war in Ivory Coast.
To what extent do you think events of these kinds can be effective?
I think it is effective because we can bring in a lot of attention — especially when journalists and bloggers start to unearth new stories that people have not heard about. I think there is a lot that can happen.
It is hard to gauge how effective these peace-making endeavors will be, but if by our visit we offer some hope and inspiration to those Korean people working for reconciliation between North and South Korea, for reuniting Korean families, and for a peace process to move Korea away from war, this will be an important concrete step towards peace in the Korean peninsula.