A Feminist Path to Peace on the Korean Peninsula

NoVo Foundation
Sep 22 · 6 min read

By Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem
Women Cross DMZ and Korea Peace Now

On May 24, 2015, Women Cross DMZ delegation cross from North Korea to South Korea and walk along barbed-wire fence along the DMZ. Photo credit: Stephen Wunrow

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Blog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, resistance, and resilience.


Four years ago, we were two of 30 women peace activists from 15 countries who traveled to North Korea and then journeyed across the DMZ to South Korea.

Christine Ahn introduces the Korea Peace Now! delegation (left to right: Siegfried Hecker, Stanford University nuclear scientist; Gloria Steinem; and Christine Ahn). Photo credit: Jean Chung

We did this on the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division to call for an end to the Korean War, for the reunion of separated families, and for women’s leadership in the peace process. We ourselves physically crossed the DMZ because this highly militarized border is the living reminder of the unresolved Korean War. It represents all the pain, separation, and trauma that this conflict has inflicted on millions of people — not only in Korea, but also around the world.

This lingering state of war is responsible for the continued tension and hostilities between the United States and North Korea. It prevents North and South Korea from mutually beneficial cooperation, and keeps millions of Korean families separated, unable even to communicate with, much less see or embrace each other.

Also, the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has one of the highest concentrations of landmines on earth, and is used to justify the existence of landmines as an acceptable weapon anywhere. Crushing sanctions contribute to hunger and illness in North Korea by keeping out needed food and supplies. Finally, the DMZ is an ever-present reminder that the United States and North Korea are still at war with each other, and that at any moment, active hostilities could resume.

Both sides have nuclear weapons, and if such weapons were used, millions of people on either side of the border would die, including some of the 100,000 U.S. citizens living in South Korea.

We crossed the DMZ to say that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can avoid war. We can make peace.

We can begin to heal the traumatic wounds of a past war and a long division. We wanted to show the world with our bodies that this border is penetrable and arbitrary. With political will, it can be eliminated.

This was not without controversy, however. Even though our group included recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, including Leymah Gbowee, who helped to end 14 years of brutal civil war in Liberia, and Mairead Maguire, who dared to cross the deep divisions in Ireland, we were dismissed as naïve by some and opposed as wrong by others.

Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem post a message for peace along with thousands of others along the barbed wire fence dividing the Korean people. Photo: Jean Chung

But women who are hopeful and visionary are often dismissed as being naïve. In fact, hope is a form of planning. If our hopes weren’t already real within us, we couldn’t even imagine them.

But even we could not have predicted that only three years later, the leaders of South and North Korea would meet in the DMZ and declare that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula.” This put in motion the kind of steps toward peace that we had marched for — soldiers from both sides shaking hands and removing guard posts, and the beginning of land-mine removal from the DMZ. This new reality is a tribute to Korean leaders and their determination to end the standoff that has separated their people for generations.

Sadly, the chances for peace depend on Washington, where the division of Korea along the 38th parallel was first drawn on a National Geographic map by two U.S. officers. Yet much of the U.S. leadership is singularly focused on forcing North Korea to unilaterally denuclearize as a necessary basis for peace talks. This approach is backward. To convince somebody to put down a gun, you first have to convince them they will not be harmed.

It’s time to declare an end to the Korean War and replace the temporary Armistice with a peace agreement, which would take the threat of war off the table and improve the security of Koreans, Americans, and the world.

Thanks to a handful of courageous U.S. lawmakers, there is now a House Resolution to end the Korean War with a peace agreement, which also calls for women’s inclusion in the peace process. Already there are almost 40 co-sponsors.

The dangers of militarization extend to all of us, but there are particular harms to women. In the chaos and brutality of war, women are often victims of violence. And after war, they are left to rebuild families and communities, and to deal with the damaged men for whom violence has been normalized.

Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem with the “comfort woman” statue in Imjingak, South Korea at the DMZ. Photo credit: Jean Chung.

The so-called “camptowns” that sprung up around U.S. military bases in South Korea became sites of sex trafficking — often of women from the Philippines or other parts of Asia or even Russia. Some of the first women who worked in these “camptowns” were former “comfort women.” Having suffered enormous physical and emotional trauma during World War II, they experienced another trauma by being unable to return home to their families after the war ended due to shame or stigma. And like the “comfort women,” the “camptown” women became the sanctioned buffer between foreign soldiers and “decent women,” their bodies used to absorb and contain soldiers’ predatory sexuality.

These women often worked these jobs not out of choice but out of financial necessity. The devastation of the Korean War left many people destitute, and without many options, women were forced to support their children, siblings, and aging parents in any way they could, helping them survive the harsh post-war years.

But women are not just victims but powerful agents for peace. Since the beginning, women have been calling for an end to the Korean War. As bombs rained down during the war, 21 women from 17 countries traveled to Korea to document the devastation and call for an immediate end to the conflict. In the 1990s, women from North Korea, South Korea and Japan met for the first time. In the 2000s during the “sunshine” years, South and North Korean women continued to meet and understand each other. Then in 2015, we continued that challenge to a global imagination by physically crossing the DMZ. All the while, we have been marching, organizing, and meeting with lawmakers about the need for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Korea Peace Now! delegation with Siegfried Hecker at Taesun Village within the DMZ, South Korea. Photo courtesy of Christine Ahn.

Our ideas aren’t wishful thinking — they are common sense solutions that actually lead to peace and security.

Studies show that whenever women are involved in the peace process, an agreement is both more likely and more durable.

Women are not smarter or better than men, we are just way less likely to have our masculinity to prove. It’s why both the United Nations and the United States have passed resolutions calling for women to play active roles in conflict prevention, management, and resolution. Now we need to get those agreements off paper and into action.

Right now, there are very few women involved in the official Korea peace process. Yet there are tens of thousands of women around the world who are working together to support this historic peace process.

We don’t know what the outcome of this process will be, but we do know that unless we act — from taking to the streets to advocating in front of our elected leaders, from meeting with North Korean women to ourselves crossing the DMZ — there will be no lasting, durable peace.

We are creating democracy and engaging in diplomacy from the bottom up.

Like a tree, this is the only way that peace grows.

NoVo Foundation

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Created in 2006 by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, NoVo is helping to build a more just and balanced world.

NoVo Foundation

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