The WomenCrossDMZ International Peace Symposium took place Sunday in central Seoul, attended by the 30 women who made their way across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from North to South Korea on Sunday.
The group was joined by other women from abroad and around South Korea to discuss the crossing, North Korea, and the role of women in peace making processes around the world.
Although the group’s original intention was to cross over the DMZ at the Panmunjom “Truce Village,” the feminists, activists and Nobel Peace Prize laureates in the end had to take a bus to a customs area at Paju. Despite the change of plans, the group hailed the symbolic nature of the crossing.
“I hope and believe we’ve served to remind a pretty big number of people that this division still exists. That it’s the oldest division left over from World War II and the Cold War. That it causes enormous human suffering and that it doesn’t have to exist,” leading feminist Gloria Steinem told NK News.
During the event, some of the group of 30 gave speeches and contributed to panels with differing focuses, from U.S. military bases in Asia, to the Pyongyang visit itself.
Moving forward, WomenCrossDMZ members interviewed by NK News wanted to push for engagement and dialogue, however admitted the process would not be easy.
“I would think that, difficult as it is, to have dialogue and engagement, which is the only way to solve conflict … both people and leadership have to have the courage to take risks for peace,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire told NK News.
While it was clear the WomenCrossDMZ group wanted further dialogue, less so was how the group could continue engaging with North Korean people, without first going through the authorities.
“I don’t know, I am not saying that the officials in North Korea are not dedicated either to fear or dominance, or some combination of the two. But what is clear is that the majority of the people in public opinion polls here, and to the extent we can know majority opinion there, support reunification,” Steinem added.
“You try as many channels as you can to build the links, between the people. And that’s people-to-people dialogue. You have to keep trying to open the channels, and find ways in there,” Maguire said.
Christine Ahn, one of the event’s principal organizers said the group members in the U.S. might try lobbying the government there.
“There were lots of ideas that were generated, but one is I would like to have the American women organize a congressional briefing in DC based on the trip, and to share with U.S. policy makers,” Ahn told NK News.
Crossing the DMZ has not come without criticism from conservatives in South Korea and abroad. Ahn herself has drawn some negative attention over past statements, leading some to label her “pro-North Korea”.
Though the speakers at the symposium were from various backgrounds and countries, no North Koreans officially took part in the proceedings south of the DMZ.
While some defectors protested outside, one however drew attention to the controversy surrounding the event when she stood up and criticized the group, calling for them to help send rice across the border.
“I escaped from North Korea 18 years ago, and I want to visit North Korea with rice, for the residents who are starving now,” Lee Ae Ran, who works at the Institute of Traditional North Korea food told NK News.
The emotionally charged questions directed at one of the panels caused some confusion in an otherwise peaceful event, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leyma Bbowee demanding the Lee be passed a microphone.
“It was too hard to get opportunity to express my opinion. The relevant people suppressed me, and it was not peaceful at all,” Lee said.
According to an introductory video on WomenCrossDMZ.org, the group’s official website, the WomenCrossDMZ campaign also took issue with current sanctions hindering North Korea’s development.
Ahn is no friend to current sanctions regimes in place against the DPRK, though when speaking to NK News, stopped short of previous claims that they prevented food from getting through to the North Korean people.
“When I was in Pyongyang I met with some of the UN, humanitarian agencies that were operating in North Korea … without naming names they basically said they are all in agreement that these sanctions are harming ordinary people,” Ahn said.
“It’s about technology, it’s about development, it’s about access to certain medications, items that are considered dual-use.”
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maguire agreed that sanctions and outward pressure kept North Korea from the negotiating table, and worsened conditions within the DPRK.
“When a country like North Korea has been cut off from the outside world, and demonized by the outside world, then the sanctions against them, that makes it harder for them to able to move forward and change,” Maguire told NK News.
Specifically, WomenCrossDMZ were told how sanctions had prevented doctors in Pyongyang’s maternity hospital from getting the necessary parts for an x-ray machine.
While sanctions may play a role in limiting dual-use items that can be repurposed for use in North Korea’s weapons programs, experts are less clear on how current sanctions affect food or medicine.
“(T)here are certainly no UN sanctions on food or medicines (there would be outcry if there were),” a sanctions expert who wished to remain anonymous told NK News.
“It is common practice by dictatorships – not just the DPRK – to claim that sanctions cause collateral humanitarian damage. The UN Panel of Experts is mandated to monitor this … the rubric to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions makes clear, there is no wish by the UN to damage the DPRK’s development through sanctions.”
Outside of UN sanctions, the U.S.’ various trade restrictions would also have little effect on food or medicine, said Joshua Stanton, attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog.
“Food and most medicine are classified as “EAR 99” – EAR refers to the Export Administration Regulations – and may be exported freely to North Korea without even a license.”
The x-ray machines could have been a problem however, due to their containing radioactive material.
“They’re probably on the Commerce Control List because they contain radioactive material. For some reason, the Commerce Department decided not to let people export radioactive materials to North Korea without a license,” Stanton added.
The U.S. restrictions would not however stop the DPRK importing the goods from its China however, which is generally less stringent on what it ships to North Korea.
Also attracting controversy was a Rodong Sinmun article published after the group’s arrival in Pyongyang.
The article caught the eye of the South Korean media as it claimed Ahn had praised Kim Il Sung during the visit.
The group was quick to deny the claims however, saying they were misquoted.
“It seems odd to me that the South Korean media, which apparently doesn’t trust, understandably, the accuracy of the North Korean media, still believed a quote attributed to Christine Ahn, which she never said,” Steinem told NK News.
Despite the inaccuracy, Hyenseo Lee – who defected from North Korea when she was 17 – believes the article points to one of Pyongyang’s possible motivations for allowing the trip to go ahead in the first place.
“These women are used as a propaganda tool by the regime. That’s the big benefit for the North Koreans, but not for the ordinary people,” Lee said.
According to Lee, it’s unlikely the women who the visiting group met were representative of real North Korea women, but were instead selected and tutored by the DPRK government.
While Steinem was aware the women were likely at least vetted by the authorities, Lee believes the authorities will have taken a step further.
“So they made questions by themselves, and they made answers by themselves, so we needed to memorize (what to say if we met foreigners), so this time these women, what they saw, what they hear from North Korea, is not real. That’s all perfectly set by the North Korean regime.”
Despite the controversy, the group claimed that throughout these initial stages, there was little more they could do. Engaging with North Korea is difficult at the best of times, with several of WomenCrossDMZ members indicating that leading with criticism would not have achieved anything.
“We are trying to establish communication that is as non-governmental as possible in order to build a human bridge, that transforms the government policy,” Steinem told NK News.
Additional reporting by Craig Urquhart
Korean interviews and translation by Yongha Jong
Featured image: Leo Byrne
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