Women Cross the DMZ

June 8, 2015 7:00 AM

Whatever you think of the highly-accomplished group of women activists that pulled off the cross-border march, we should keep sight of the obvious: the sky didn’t fall. As with anything at Witness to Transformation, the march requires a balance sheet treatment. I have been slow because the organizers have been slow in telling their story, and to their detriment. But we now have enough to go on and it's a mixed picture.

The main question is simple: “how badly did they get played? On the upside, the march advocated for a relaxation of people-to-people contacts, something I strongly support and this blog encapsulates in the catchphrase “get people in, get people out.” It also made relatively clear statements about family reunions, which have clearly been blocked by the North; the South would hold them tomorrow if given the opportunity to do so.

More controversially, the march pressed for more official engagement on the part of the South and perhaps from other countries as well (no serious person can believe that the march is likely to have any effect on policy in the North). We return to the form that might take below, but some of the proposals—such as going straight to the negotiation of a peace regime or lifting sanctions—are not at all what they appear.

On the downside, the inability to control domestic North Korean messaging was the biggest minus. But we had also hoped for some stronger statements and a better understanding of the current state of diplomatic play once the group emerged from the constraints of operating in the North. The final "reflection" and declaration contained a few disappointments as well.

Here is a blow by blow, focusing on the KCNA coverage and the statements that subsequently emerged.

May 19. Neutral KCNA coverage of the arrival of the group and reception by the Korean Committee for Solidarity with the World People at the Yanggakdo Hotel.

May 20. Visits to iconic historical sites always pose challenges, and KCNA coverage leads with the obligatory visit to Mangyongdae, the birthplace of President Kim Il Sung. The women also visited the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Textile Mill, Kyongsang Kindergarten, Okryu Children's Hospital and the Breast Tumor Institute of the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

May 21. The trouble came—predictably—with the International Peace Symposium. According to KCNA, “speeches were made by anti-war peace activists Irish Maguire Mairead, Liberian Gbowee Leymah Roberta, American Benjamin Susan Jill, Colombian Guerrero Acevedo Angela Patricia, Japanese Takazato Suzuyo and Kim Chun Sil, member of the Korean Committee on Measures for the Sexual Slavery for Japanese Army and Drafting Victims.” This last organization ran afoul of the Ministry of Unification back in 2012 for issuing a joint statement on the comfort women issue with a North Korean counterpart. Is this what the MOU should be doing?

But then a nasty little KCNA pivot: “speakers [sic] said that the Japanese imperialists keen on aggression and war committed the heinous crimes of forcing 200,000 Korean women into sexual slavery, slashing the Asia-Pacific region and slaughtering its people. They said the U.S. is trying to ignite wars in different parts of the world, branding it as a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human right abuses.” Unfortunatley, we do not have copies of the speeches that were given, a major misstep on the part of the organizers. It is certainly right that Japan engaged in aggression and sexual crimes. But it has also issued statements of apology (the Kono and Murayama statements), despite enervating waffling. Where are the parallel North Korean statements of apology for starting the Korean War?

The women visiting Pyongyang almost certainly didn’t make the claims attributed by the KCNA to “speakers,” and some have rightly denied that they did. Christine Ahn claims that the reported praise she gave to Kim Il-Sung was a “mistake in translation”. But the WCD’s final statement—made after they had left North Korea--seemed to place as much blame on the South Korean and international media for picking up on the “misquotes” than on the North Koreans who misquoted them in the first place. Moreover, whatever we think of human rights in “capitalist countries,” it is more than a little galling to be called out by a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world.

May 21. The difficulties continued with the meeting at the People's Palace of Culture. Again, unidentified “speakers”—no doubt North Korean--said that “the U.S. imperialists had plunged the Korean nation into the holocaust during the Fatherland Liberation War, adding that it was the most barbarous crimes against humanity unprecedented in the history of world wars. They denounced the U.S. for bringing nuclear weapons into south Korea and waging frantic war exercises every year by instigating the anti-reunification forces.” Any corrections on offer? How costly is it to respectfully point out that this interpretation of what happened is not shared by the vast majority of historians—left, right and center—in the US, Japan, Europe and elsewhere? Isn’t the purpose of such an effort to speak truth to power all around?

May 22. Again, the delegation faced the difficulty that any visitors to Pyongyang are necessarily portrayed as if on a pilgrimage to the Kim family shrine. At the International Friendship Exhibition House, the women “paid tribute to President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il before their wax replicas.” Needless to say, this group of women did not “pay tribute” to the Kim dynasty. But no North Korean reading domestic news sources would know that; to the contrary.

May 23. After an opening ceremony with a speech from Maguire Mairead, the delegation began the official part of their march at the Three Charters for National Reunification in Pyongyang. According to KCNA, “She expressed on behalf of the delegation bitter feelings towards the untold sufferings and disasters suffered by the Korean women, which are attributable to the past Korean war and the war moves that persisted even after the war.” This appears unobjectionable, but the meaning hinges on the crucial question of culpability.

May 24. The women crossed the DMZ by bus, not through Panmunjom as they had originally planned. The organizers appeared to say that they had approached both sides for clearance to cross through Panmunjon but were denied by both. But a Codepink press release later said that it was the UN Command that balked. Shuttling them through Dorasan seems like a South Korean propaganda play; the reasons for diverting the march in this fashion don’t seem too convincing. After arriving at the Dorasan Immigration Office the women held another press conference and were met by 300 South Korean women activists who joined them in walking the 2.5 kilometers to Pyeonghwa-Nuri Park. The marchers were greeted by South Korean supporters but also encountered protests from conservative groups, which forced them to cancel an afternoon ceremony.

ÀμâSource: Hanyoreh, May 25, 2015

May 25. WCD held an international women’s peace conference at Seoul City Hall where they discussed the issues from their joint declaration made with North Korean women groups. There was at least some controversy that the mayor offered congratulatory remarks (in Korean) at the conference and allowed the women to use city hall facilities.

May 26. The women announced they plan to return to march again next year but this time from the South going up North (in Korean). Reactions continued to be mixed with supporting women’s groups marching (in Korean) at Kwanghwamun in central Seoul. Meanwhile, conservative groups called for the government to ban the activists from returning (in Korean) to South Korea just as the ROK government punished Korean-American Eun-mi Shin last January for publically being too sanguine about the DPRK government. Last time I checked, South Korea was a liberal democracy. If conservatives want to hold counter-demonstrations, that is their right. But since when do liberal democracies ban people from speaking their minds?

To date, we have only been able to find two statements from the march: Women Crossing the DMZ: Reflections and Resolutions and a surprisingly hard-to-find Declaration on the website of the South Korean YWCA.

Reflections and Resolutions was put up on June 3, and is divided into three sections: a brief introduction; “successes”; and “challenges.” The march focused on how the experience of separation should be used to push for peace and sought to draw attention to the Korean issue. Fine. But peace is an objective, not a strategy; so what is the political game? Predictably, the influence these women are likely to exercise is greater in the South than in the North.

Where we agree most strongly with the march is in its claim that “since 2007, effort to engage with North Koreans have been greatly hampered, and even criminalized.” If the march can put muscle behind greater people-to-people contacts in a variety of forums, then that is a plus. This is the type of work that many of these women have done in conflict settings, building bridges and humanizing enemies through dialogue and contact. The Reflections also noted how social media was used to broadcast live feed of the event, although we have not been able to find it since and the whole effort would be aided mightily by knowing what was actually said.

On the Challenges, the piece does note the use of quotes out of context, but blaming the South Korean and international media is more than a little naïve; the press was largely reporting what the KCNA said had transpired. So where was—and is--the effort to get their side of the story out? The Challenges does state, however, that the women protested the coverage to their hosts.

The guts of the “Declaration” is contained in a number of bullets, and as we have discussed each of these issues at great length in the blog, we only make a few basic points on each. We have reordered them to begin with the less controversial, moving to the more.

  • “Help reunite Korean families tragically separated by an artificial, unwanted division.” This strikes us an area where the group could really have impact. The manipulation of family visits for political gain on the part of the North is utterly shameful and stating in a neutral way that this could happen tomorrow could be a major focus of the group.
  • “Amplify women’s leadership in the peacebuilding process in Korea and around the world in accordance with international law;”. In my humble opinion, I fail to see the downside risk from accomplished women getting together with North Korean women to share their lives, politics, and aspirations. To our knowledge, virtually the only written piece we have seen defending this simple point is a piece at Politico by Tim Shorrock, also citing Dan Pinskton at the International Crisis Group; Pinkston has defended sports diplomacy here.
  • “Lessen military tensions on the Korean peninsula,” “challenge the world to support Korea’s reconciliation and reunification as a cornerstone of building world peace,” and “redirect funds devoted to arms race toward improving people’s welfare and protecting the environment.” These are hardly controversial but the last claim is more than a little ironic given that North Korea probably has the highest ratio of military spending to GDP in the world.
  • “Decry wartime violence toward women and girls and bring justice for the “comfort women” who survived sexual slavery during WWII.” That this issue needs continued attention is a sad testimony to the persistence of a small Japanese right-wing. But we also have to ask the pragmatic question Jenny Lind poses in her book Sorry States. If this is a cudgel to continue to beat up on Japan—wielded by either North, South or the Women’s March for Peace—will it have the intended effect? This is an important issue that requires thought, and this group is ideally placed to do it. But “decrying wartime violence” does not strike us as the lead note to get thoughtful dialogue on the issue.
  • “Call for the official end of the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty as stipulated in Article 4 Paragraph 60.” This appears to have been one of the more central statements of the march, and it is silent on the complex interplay between the collapse of the Six Party Talks and the future of a peace regime. The US and the other five parties have committed to the negotiation of a peace regime in the context of the joint statement of the Six Party Talks from September 2005. But North Korea has walked away from those talks and—at least in the past—has used “peace regime” negotiations as a way of sidestepping its nuclear commitments. The march made absolutely no mention whatsoever of the nuclear issue or even the more neutral statement of “denuclearization on the peninsula.”
  • “Appeal to the international community to lift sanctions that harm innocent civilians.” This is perhaps the most tendentious statement of all, one advanced by Christine Ahn it appears. Sanctions have been explicitly designed to avoid harm to innocent civilians and even commercial trade has not really been targeted except indirectly. But the march fails to note that the sanctions have been imposed not simply by the US but through a multilateral process at the UN Security Council. All of the five parties have agreed that targeted sanctions on North Korea's weapons program are an appropriate response to North Korean derogations with respect to a variety of international commitments. Marc Noland has compared the North Korea and Iraq sanctions cases here and here; this sounds very similar to Saddam's campaign blaming international sanctions for the suffering of Iraqis during the 1990s. Please!

The reaction to the march was in my view way out of proportion to its likely effect one way or the other. But to close on a positive note: people-to-people exchanges are good and if these women can make progress on uniting families and loosening people-to-people exchanges that is a good thing. But above all, these women—and anyone—should be free to express their opinions even when we disagree with them. In sum: lighten up.


Curtis Melvin

I hate to sound too cynical, but since I participated in nearly identical events in North Korea back in 2004 and 2005, I can say that these "people-to-people" exchanges are not what they appear on the surface. The North Koreans have a bureaucracy that is responsible for arranging these kinds of events--as they have done since the founding of the "republic". The North Koreans copied this bureaucracy from the Soviets who employed it to develop relationships with friendly foreigners who can pressure their own governments to adopt policies that the Soviets would find acceptable. This bureaucratic organization is not a mechanism for changing North Korean policy--it is a mechanism for accomplishing North Korea's foreign policy (particularly with countries with which it does not have formal diplomatic relations). Ms. Ahn and Alejandro Cao de Benos have the same handlers in Pyongyang.

Michael Bassett

Lighten up, Melvin. To compare these women to the KFA degrades the degree of education you've been awarded. And on that, what expertise do you actually possess in public diplomacy? Why is it that not one single solitary publication reached out to a public diplomacy academic for their analysis of this event? I have one plausible answer - because this field tends to be dominated by self-interested ideologues who think they have the market cornered on knowledge of all scholarship that possibly has an effect on the Korean War. I'm sorry to break it to you, Melvin, but you're just an economist with Google Earth and you should stay in your lane.

Curtis Melvin

Those interested in learning about the Soviet bureaucracy on which the North Korean cultural exchange program is modeled can start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VOKS. Of course there are JSTOR and other options available if you have access and care to conduct further research.

Michael Bassett

And yet the Soviet Union fell... Not because of an intelligently-designed cultural program, but because of the idealogical cracks that were created by the inflow of external information, and desire for a better life that resulted from it. Of course, a public diplomacy scholar would know all the details of that already.

Walter L. Keats

Another well balanced analysis from Steph, in my opinion. I concur strongly with the catchphrase, "get people in, get people out." Re the May 21 statements by the North Koreans re the origins of the Korean War, having had discussions with individual North Koreans (guides) on this topic, frankly I'm not sure what would transpire were individuals or a group to "correct" or offer an alternative "history" at a public forum such as this group was in. When discussing these issues I felt it best not to put my listener in the position of having another North Korean hear the discussion so that they might later be reported on at a struggle session. As most of your readers know, I hope, usually weekly or more frequently North Koreans have "struggle" sessions in their "units" where they are supposed to report on any "bad thoughts or actions" that they themselves have done since the last meeting (kind of a confessional). The problem is that just reporting on yourself isn't proof enough of your sincerity and adherence to the rules. You have to be "observant" and note and report when others break the rules. This means you have to periodically report on your friends and colleagues. Thus if you are involved in something questionable with a foreigner that someone else can report on you should self-report to save yourself some pain. I'm not sure how a room full of North Koreans would act or have to act when confronted to their face with a contradiction of a central tenant of their "origin myth." I would think that things could get ugly pretty quickly as the North Korean attendees had to demonstrate their outrage and loyalty to the Kim's so that they and their families don't get punished later. Such a direct, public affront to the system might also require some "appropriate" response to the balloon poppers that might not be pleasant. Not to be too sexist but I'm not sure why we should want/expect a group of women to take the lead in such a behavioral "experiment" when, to my knowledge we haven't seen any of our brave male representatives test the Taedong waters, other than poor Merrill Newman.


Kathy Moon on the march for Brookings. Are views of the march just maybe--maybe?--colored by gender as well as politics? http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2015/06/03-women-cross-dmz...

Michael Bassett

Hmmm,Melvin, even Greg Scarlatoiu supports the Laibach concert, which is being facilitated by the CCRFC. I suppose Korean War coverage will soon be the Litmus Test of Academic, journalistic, and political integrity. I personally wouldn't recommend selling one's integrity for any amount of money and popularity. But, to each their own. We see how far that's getting Suki Kim. http://lareviewofbooks.org/contributor/john-w-w-zeiser


Thanks to Michael Munk, I was alerted to the following account of the trip by Jodie Evans, founder of Code Pink. If anyone still thinks that this group of women was simply bamboozled, think again: Evans has a very sharp nose for BS: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/stitching-korea-back-together-.... SH

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