A group of women’s rights activists will head to North Korea later this month to hold a peace rally and then walk across the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the Korean peninsula for more than 60 years. They will then hold peace-related events in Seoul, South Korea. Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield talked to Gloria Steinem about the march. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Washington Post: Tell me about the purpose of this march. Why are you joining it, and what do you think it can achieve?
Gloria Steinem: Our purpose has been to call attention to this unresolved conflict that I suspect most people or many people have forgotten. For one thing, I'm the oldest person on this trip, I'm the only one who remembers the Korean War and the armistice, and I'm not sure others do. So it seems an obligation to point it out, especially since in my lifetime I have been told that the Soviet Union absolutely could not change without major bloodshed, that apartheid would never end in South Africa without an enormous war, that the Berlin Wall would not fall as long as the Soviet Union existed, that the Irish conflict would never [be] solved. I’ve been consistently told that all of these conflicts would not end without war. Yet they have, and they have ended because people talked to each other. So it seemed important to support the many people I have met in South Korea and also refugees from North Korea who want this opportunity to bring families together, to at least be able to travel freely and talk to each other.
WP: This is a diverse group of celebrated women you're traveling with. What lessons/advice will each of you have for the governments in both North and South Korea?
GS: We are really there to listen and learn, to say we care by being physically present. There is no substitute for putting your bodies where your concerns are. If I have any message myself, it’s that in my experience conflicts are far more likely to be solved when people sit down together. I asked a friend of mine who is a neurologist if the chemicals, the hormones that allow us to empathize with each other are produced by looking at a television screen or at a computer screen, and she said no -- you have to be together with all five senses in order to produce the oxytocin that allows us to empathize with each other. It just underlined to me the importance of human contact. We’re communal creatures; we have been sitting around campfires for 100,000 years; we need to see each other in order to understand each other. Of course it isn’t up to me to decide what happens in Korea; it’s up to the people who live there, both North and South. But I hope we can be helpful by providing an example of human contact between north and south.
WP: What kinds of events will you be having in Pyongyang, and what message will you be sending?
GS: We don’t know. We’ve been told we will have a meeting with one or more of the women’s organization ... but we’re guests. It’s not up to us.
WP: Do you plan to address women's/human rights issues there?
GS: Yes, we will say what our experience is and ask what their experience is and hope that one informs the other.
WP: Crossing the DMZ would be a very rare feat. Why is this part of the walk? What does it signify for you?
GS: The last time I was in South Korea, I went to the South Korean side of the DMZ, and there is a massive modern railway station built by a previous administration which is ghostly and empty. You can look across and see the buildings on the other side, and yet there is no contact. It’s hard to think of a more dramatic symbol of artificial separation.
We are performing a symbolic act of crossing an uncrossable border in the hope that it will bring attention, first of all, and secondly to encourage others to seek contact. We do what we can. But we don’t know what impact it will have. We just believe that if you instill in your individual acts the goal that you want to achieve, you have a better goal of achieving it. So going there physically, spending the time, spending the effort, bringing gifts, calling attention to the situation. Those of us who are not from either North Korea or South Korea are there to support those who are and to bring attention to this division, the almost last remaining division of World War II and post World War II.
WP: There has been some criticism about the march, with some people saying that it will benefit/legitimize the North Korean regime. What do you say to the critics?
GS: I certainly take it seriously. I’ve read a great deal. I’ve talked to many people, and I do not see that creating pressure for change is legitimizing the changeless -- on the contrary. And I do not think that the same people were critical of Ronald Reagan when he stood next to the Berlin wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." We’re essentially doing the same thing. I don’t know what’s going on in their minds, but as an organizer I know that lack of contact creates more lack of contact, and contact creates more contact, or at least an ability to talk to with each other. So, with all due respect, I don’t agree.
Isolation and condemnation and lack of contact between ordinary citizens or officials hasn’t been successful, so why not be willing to try actually talking and actually walking?
I notice a lot on campuses and in general that there are always questions like “Well, what should I do?” I think the answer is that we do what we can. Worry less about solutions from the top or the idea that there is a solution, but try to do whatever you can and instill in each action the values that you want to result. So we are walking peacefully and are open to answering any questions that this once-united country and its citizens have in mind. And we just hope that it’s helpful. It’s very clear that it’s up to the people who live there to decide about reunification. The great majority of people in South Korea have consistently said that they want reunification. I don’t know that there have been public opinion polls in North Korea (laughs), but we are in support of what they say they want to happen.