Organizers of WomenCrossDMZ.org, including honorary co-chairman Gloria Steinem, right, and lead coordinator Christine Ahn, listen during a U.N. news conference. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

When a group of 30 high-profile women travel to Pyongyang in a few weeks, they will be trying a new approach to the decades-old problem of the divided Korean Peninsula, says Gloria Steinem, a longtime feminist who will be taking part.

In the most noteworthy — and perhaps most controversial — trip since basketball star Dennis Rodman shot hoops and downed drinks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the women plan to hold a peace symposium and rally in the North Korean capital. They intend next to travel to the border with South Korea and walk across the 2 1/2 -mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, which has divided the Korean Peninsula for more than 60 years, before holding similar peace-related events in Seoul.

“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?” said Steinem, whose name was synonymous with women’s liberation in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

Steinem, 81, said that over the course of her life she had been told that the Soviet Union could not collapse, the Berlin Wall could not come down, and that apartheid in South Africa and the troubles in Ireland could never be resolved.

“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,” Steinem said in an interview. “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.”

At the end of World War II, a line was drawn along the 38th parallel, dividing the peninsula into the Soviet-backed North and the U.S.-supported South, which were at war for three years in the early 1950s. Families were separated, and highly monitored reunions have been held sporadically — and according to the state of political relations between the two Koreas.

Although both Koreas call for unification, they have sharply different ideas about how that should happen. The North wants the South to adopt its communist system, while those in the exponentially richer South naturally expect the North to be absorbed into the structure of the South. But as time goes on, younger generations of South Koreans are growing increasingly detached from the idea that Northerners are their brethren.

Steinem will be joined on the march by Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work toward ending the conflict in Northern Ireland; Leymah Gbowee, who shared the same prize in 2011 for helping to resolve Liberia’s civil war; and Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of the women’s antiwar and activist group Code Pink.

The walk is being organized by Korean Americans Suzy Kim, a professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, and Christine Ahn, an activist based in Hawaii.

On May 24 — International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament — they plan to walk across the DMZ through Panmunjom, where blue U.N. huts straddle the demarcation line and where an armistice was signed in 1953 to end the Korean War. As many as 1 million North Korean soldiers are at the ready along their side of the 160-mile-long border, facing off against 620,000 South Korean and 28,500 U.S. troops on the other side. Former president Bill Clinton once called the DMZ “the scariest place on earth.”

Although North Korea has approved the events and the crossing, South Korea is not thrilled about the project — not least because it is planned for the date that is shorthand in South Korea for the sanctions imposed on North Korea after the 2010 torpedo sinking of a warship from the South. Seoul has taken its time in approving the walk. The United Nations Command, which controls the DMZ, has not yet given its permission.

The walk has been sharply criticized in Washington, with U.S. officials privately expressing dismay. Meanwhile, advocates for improvements in North Korean human rights have publicly expressed reservations.

“I’m not opposed to it, but I have reservations because of the compromises being made to undertake the walk,” said Roberta Cohen, a human rights specialist at the Brookings Institution. “The major compromise so far seems to be silence about human rights.”

Steinem should pay particular attention to the condition of women in North Korea, Cohen said, as outlined in the harrowing testimonies in a U.N. commission of inquiry report last year. The report documented forcible abortions and women in prison camps being made to drown their newborns.

“If this group doesn’t step up and incorporate some concerns about who they are dealing with, then they will definitely reinforce the legitimacy of this regime,” she said.

Writing in The Washington Post on April 26, Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, were critical of the march.

“We desperately need the voices of feminists protesting the murder, torture and exploitation of North Korean women by their own government,” they wrote. “But any sanctioning of a peace march by North Korea can be nothing but human rights theater intended to cover up its death camps and crimes against humanity.”

Steinem said that she took such criticism seriously and had been doing research ahead of the march.

“I do not see that creating pressure for change is legitimizing the changeless. On the contrary,” she said.She compared what she and the other women plan to do to Ronald Reagan’s visit to Berlin in 1987, when he rhetorically addressed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, telling him to “tear down this wall,” referring to the barrier separating communist East Germany from Berlin.

“We’re essentially doing the same thing,” she said.“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 each other. So with all due respect, I don’t agree.”

Asked whether she would raise the issue of human rights in North Korea, Steinem said: “Yes, we will say what our experience is and ask what their experience is and hope that one informs the other.”

Read more

North Koreans take a lesson in business, starting with a ‘lean canvas’

North Korea’s growing economy — and America’s misconceptions about it

North Korea: Knife attack on U.S. ambassador was ‘deserved punishment’

U.N. committee condemns North Korea, citing crimes against humanity