The greatest point of contention was over the Rodong Shinmun report. According to Ahn, she told the paper that her mother, a largely uneducated woman from South Korea, was aware that Kim Il Sung had been a resistance fighter against the Japanese—a historical fact that some Koreans (and many Americans) are unaware of. In the North Korean media, this translated into praise for the Great Leader, which greatly angered Ahn and her colleagues. They demanded, and were refused, a retraction.
But there were some breakthroughs. When Women Cross DMZ started writing their statement of purpose for the North Korean authorities, said Steinem, “we were told if we put human rights in it would not be approved, and it was. I think that was a great triumph.” In an interview, Steinem was well aware of the human rights problems in North Korea as well as its contradictions.
Pyongyang is “beautiful—there’s no billboards, you can see the stars, there’s no condoms in the parks, it’s clean,” she said. “But it’s very buttoned down and very, very regimented, the most regulated society I’ve ever been in.” Still, she added, “you don’t get the feeling people are rebellious about it—you get the feeling that this is their reality, period.” But based on her conversations with previous visitors, Pyongyang seemed more vibrant than before. “There’s less of a feeling that it’s a Potemkin Village,” she said.
Still, there was one thing that gave her confidence in the future: “they laughed.” Steinem said she shared several jokes with her official interpreter. Once, when she asked about a sign on the street, her guide told her it said something about the Great Leader. “I said, ‘what a surprise,’ and she laughed.” It’s through such human connections, she said, that mutual trust can be built.
Pinkston, who has visited the North five times since 2008, agreed with Steinem. He believes that the Kim regime’s military-first policies have put the country on a collision course with the United States. “They absolutely view nuclear weapons as a necessary conduit for economic development and prosperity.”
Unfortunately, in his view, that leaves the U.S. government with two untenable choices: “either accept it and ignore it, or change it by force.” But with war out of the question, he said, the world can either adjust and accept the North Korean world view; or the North Koreans adjust. That’s were events like Women Cross DMZ come in. These types of outreach are the only way to begin repairing the relationship between North and South Korea.
In contrast to the criticism of the march from defectors and conservatives, and the obvious mistrust of the Seoul government, many South Koreans were overjoyed at the prospect of overseas support. After their arrival in Paju, the foreign women rode in their bus to the unification park called Imjingak. There, they were met by several hundred Korean women, peace activists and nuns, who sang and cheered as the women joined the crowd.
One of the most beautiful moments came when they unfurled a giant quilt sewn by some of the participants and women from both North and South Korea. Quilts, Ahn told me, are a “woman’s art form in Korea” and were often used by women to wrap their belongings when they were forced to flee war-torn cities in both North and South. “It carries symbolic value of Korean women to cover and heal the divided peninsula with a message of peace.”
As they made their way from the Kaesong highway to the park, the marchers and their Korean supporters carried the peace quilt and sang Arirang, a beloved song about unification sung throughout the peninsula. A phalanx of photographers captured the scene.
Passing by barbed wire fences and flanked by grim Korean MPs—some of them carrying automatic weapons—they slowly made their way to a giant stage, where they were met by hundreds more people who had been waiting for hours in the sun. The next morning, about 300 people gathered at Seoul City Hall for an all-day peace conference similar to the meeting held in Pyongyang. There, the women were greeted by the mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon, a progressive politician.
After 70 years of division, he said, Korea is “still a place of sorrow and pain. Based on your efforts, we can get a jump-start to unification and dialogue. You women lay a foundation for this work.” As I greeted some of the marchers, a Korean woman named Myung Shin Kim took me aside and told me, “I’m here to work for unification.”
Her family, she recounted, was one of the 10 million separated by the division. Two years ago, her aging mother, who had left North Korea during the war, decided to visit the North on a government-sponsored visit. But the trip was cancelled by Pyongyang in a last minute dispute, and her mother died shortly after that. “So that was her last chance,” she said sadly.
It was decisions like that, Ahn told me, that convinced her to organize the march in the first place. In 2009, several villages in South Korea were flooded when waters unleashed by a storm in the North raised the levels of the Imjin River that flows from the North into the South; six people died. The incident angered her, she said, because the flooding could have been avoided if the two sides had been in regular touch. “Why couldn’t these men in North and South Korea just talk?” she thought.
Later, Ahn said, she had a dream about the South, where she was born (her parents brought her to the United States when she was three). In the dream, people came to cross the border and there was “a light,” she recalled. “I saw a circle of women stirring a big pot, pouring with a big ladle as light flowed down the road. I woke up and I thought, ‘women will end the Korean War.’” Steinem was one of the first women to embrace the idea, which eventually was joined by women from nearly all the countries involved in the Korean War. The planning meetings and negotiations began in March 2014.
The women will keep pressing the issue with all governments involved, said Steinem. Speaking of her visit to both sides of the conflict, she said “we had real human connections. There’s nothing like women sitting down in a circle and telling each other stories. That is what happened.”