PAJU, South Korea — A group of international women’s activists made a rare crossing from North Korea into South Korea on Sunday, hailing the trip as a “first step in the right direction” toward bridging divisions between the estranged countries.
But the women — led by Gloria Steinem, the pioneering American feminist — did not walk across the demilitarized zone, as they had hoped, nor did they pass through the symbolic truce village of Panmunjom, where the armistice that halted the Korean War was signed. Both changes were indicative of the controversy that the event generated, amid accusations that the women were legitimizing Kim Jong Un’s regime and ignoring its human rights abuses.
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“I firmly believe it was a small but first step in the right direction,” Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said as the women arrived in Paju on the southern side of the demilitarized zone, or DMZ.
Mairead Maguire, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work toward ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, said the women were “privileged to come across the DMZ.” She added: “I’m saddened that many South Korean families cannot reunite with their family.”
Other women on the trip, organized by the group WomenCrossDMZ, included Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, who is more often seen protesting on Capitol Hill, and the American documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney.
In Pyongyang, the women held a march in the center of the capital — with the blessing of the government — carrying a banner that said in English: “Calling for Women’s Leadership in the Korean Peace Process.”
The women had hoped to walk across the border at the historically significant and more photogenic Panmunjom, where troops from the North and the South stare each other down across a raised concrete line.
But the South Korean government said the activists should cross at the railway link between the South and the Southern-run industrial complex at Kaesong in the North. They went through by bus, walking only a short final stretch.
As the women arrived in the South, they were greeted by a handful of protesters shouting phrases that included “You are frauds!” and “Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il are international terrorists!” Some held signs that said “If you really want peace, condemn Kim Jong Un’s human rights suppression” and “Pig Kim Jong Un destroys peace.”
“If you like North Korea so much, go back to North Korea! Why are you coming here to pure South Korea?” said Nam Soon-myeong, a protester. “Dialogue doesn’t solve anything between the two Koreas. There should be no compromise on matters of national security.”
The trip, which included women-related events and seminars in North Korea, followed by the crossing and similar events in South Korea, was billed by the organizers as a way to draw attention to the continued separation of the peninsula. Both Koreas technically remain at war because the 1950-1953 conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Families are separated by the division, and most people in the South do not have any contact with their relatives in the authoritarian North.
There were some who supported the activists’ cause. “I miss my family. Let me go to my home town,” one sign in Paju read.
But there were many more detractors. Joshua Stanton, who runs the One Free Korea blog, was among those who accused the group of not paying attention to the well-documented human rights abuses in North Korea.
“Steinem has had to duck questions about the regime’s rape and murder of female prisoners, the endemic and unpunished rapes of North Korean women by its soldiers, and the infanticides and forced abortions this regime inflicts on North Korean refugee women and their babies,” he wrote in a recent post.
But asked about human rights when the group arrived in South Korea, Steinem told reporters that the women had raised the issue.
“We were told by many people that mentioning human rights in North Korea would be a deal breaker, but it wasn’t. We included human rights issues in the declaration, and North Korea accepted it,” she said, referring to a declaration released during a forum with a North Korean women’s group.
“You can get to human rights when you have a normal situation and not a country at war,” Maguire added. “The sooner we get a peace treaty signed . . . the quicker we will get to human rights.”