Rutgers professor marches in North Korea during summer with political activist Gloria Steinem
In the scorching heat and cloaked in white uniforms, 30 women hailing from North and South Korea, Ireland, Liberia, Colombia and the United States, among other countries, braved the crossing of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, abbreviated to DMZ. Among the women was Rutgers professor Suzy Kim, one of the main organizers of the walk that was held on May 24, a day recognized as International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament.
The DMZ, the most heavily militarized border in the world, is a two-mile border ensnared with barbed wire and decoys that separates the North and South sides of the Korean peninsula. Kim, an associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, ventured across the buffer zone in stride with famed social and political activist Gloria Steinem, Nobel Prize laureates and Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist, the main organizer of the walk and founder of the group "Women De-Militarize the Zone," which sponsored the peace walk.
The organizers said the purpose of the walk, according to The New York Times, was to push for a lasting peace treaty that would replace the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, which contractually ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953, but has yet to truly halt the Korean War, a conflict that killed about 4 million people, many Korean, and divided families, many of whom are still petitioning to reunite with their parents, siblings and children.
“I felt both a professional and personal responsibility to address one of the greatest tragedies of modern history,” Kim said.
Steinem and Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, an international network committed to abolishing war and securing peace, were exceptionally committed to the cause of women challenging militarism, Kim said. To remain true to their objective of promoting peace, Kim emphasized that crossing the DMZ was a peace walk and not a march.
A peace walk, as opposed to a march, would signify the call to diffuse the recent escalating tensions between the North and South Korea, as opposed to additional animosity, she said.
Despite the tensions still present between North and South Korea, there have been moments of relative improvements in the relations between the two regions — South Korean families were able to reach out to their relatives in the North. Yet recently, tensions have surged, and the two regions have been embroiled in bitter back-and-forth argumentation.
In the first week of August 2015, the South Korean government accused the North Korean government of planting three land mines on the South Korean side of the border that exploded and severed the leg of one soldier and both legs for another soldier.
Following the incident, South Korean president Park Geun-hye demanded apologies from North Korea for planting the land mines, and South Korea blared anti-Pyongyang propaganda over its loudspeakers, a tactic The New York Times reported that South Korea had not used for 11 years.
North Korea denied planting the land mines. It threatened to attack the loudspeakers, then acted upon its threat on Aug. 20. The two sides exchanged fire with no casualties reported from either side.
Days later, South Korea agreed to shut off its loudspeakers unless agitated again, and North Korea "expressed regret" over the mine explosion, which South Korean officials interpreted as an apology, and which North Korea was quick to correct.
“They are so ignorant of the Korean language they don’t even know the meanings and definitions of Korean words,” the North’s National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, according to The New York Times.
At the time, North Korea said it would revoke the deal if South Korean officials continued to distort statements from North Korea. But in that time, leaders from both countries met for talks and resuscitated a program that reunited families split by the Korean War.
According to WomenCrossDMZ.org, 4,000 elders in South Korea died in the last year while waiting to see their siblings or children who were in North Korea.
Despite their best efforts to affirm their peaceful intentions, the women were accused of taking a pro-North Korean stance, according to The World on Arirang, a South Korean news organization.
Jennifer Lee, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said the strong response elicited by the peace walk benefited the cause by bringing more attention to it.
Lee said one of the most significant aspects of any dialogue between the North and South is the “reunification of families.” She also believes that any chance of progress is dependent on pressure on North Korea from China.
“There is no question that their goal to achieve peace between the two Koreas is a noble one,” Lee said.