Feminist icon Gloria Steinem helmed a group of 30 female activists Sunday in crossing the heavily fortified (and paradoxically named) demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The Women Cross DMZ march included several Nobel laureates, and strove to encourage peace between the embattled halves of the Korean peninsula, which is still in a technical state of war after the 1953 ceasefire that established the 38th parallel divide that continues to define the status quo.
The DMZ is a few-mile wide strip between the North and South which has been constantly stacked with troops on both sides for six decades. Land mines also speckle the length of the zone.
After a several day goodwill visit with women in North Korea – documented with streaming video feed – Women Cross DMZ traversed the zone by bus. The group received express permission from both Pyongyang and Seoul for the crossing. For Steinem, the DMZ that splits the Korean peninsula is packed with emotional power: “it’s hard to imagine any more physical symbol of the insanity of dividing human beings,” she said last month in a public event announcement.
Few would argue with the contention that the DMZ is a politically-fraught demarcation. But some analysts have argued that Women Cross DMZ’s approach invoked an unjustifiable argument that insisted on a false equivalency between the two sides. By calling for peace and tolerance from both sides, these analysts allege, Steinem and her fellow marchers essentially endorsed the North Korean government as legitimate. Furthermore, their insistence on keeping the event as balanced and apolitical as possible was an immoral choice in light of systemic human rights abuses propagated by the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.” One op-ed argued that casting peace as a feminist issue was particularly pernicious, given the well-documented gender-based violence throughout the North.
Those holding this view met Women Cross DMZ with a protest on the South Korean side of the border. There were around 500 protesters in all, some of whom were North Korean defectors. Many argued that Steinem was essentially complicit in a pro-Pyongyang PR campaign, since the goodwill visit was with women specifically selected (and presumably strictly coached) by the North Korean government. As one former Seoul legislator put it, “I don’t like the way these ladies, Steinem and so-called Nobel Prize laureates, are participating in this one-sided propaganda event.” He went on to malign the group as “useful idiots in the service of North Korea’s interests.”
Before the march, Steinem defended her choice to follow through with the planned events. “It seems to me that in the past, no contact has not worked. So we feel it’s important that we try reaching out – friendship, contact, walking, doing with our physical selves what we hope can be done politically.”
The debate between engagement and regime isolation closely mirrors the debate surrounding the ethics of North Korean tourism, which could have the positive effect of exposing Northerners to outsiders but still enriches repressive officials. Incidentally, these discussions are unlikely to end any time soon: support for reunification is currently low among South Koreans, who worry about footing the bill for absorbing the Pyongyang-run economy – and the North Korea propaganda machine will surely continue to stage flattering visits for dignitaries eager to give them the benefit of the doubt.