International women’s movement seeks to reunite Korea

There is a desire for reunification on both sides of the DMZ, as shown by the Monument to Reunification near Pyongyang, North Korea.
Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

– by Christine Ahn –

On May 24, 2015, thirty women peacemakers from fifteen nations crossed from North Korea into Sound Korea in a demonstration calling for an official end to the decades-long Korean War. The peacemakers included American activist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace laureates, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia. The event was part of a growing women’s movement to reunify Korea.

America leads the UN into war with the North
Korea became a divided nation in the aftermath of World War II when, in 1948, the United States, with a nod of agreement from the Soviet Union, divided the Korean peninsula. During the ensuing Korean war, the United States led the United Nations Command in a brutal scorched earth campaign across the Korean peninsula, particularly in the north where US bombing campaigns destroyed agricultural dams and leveled 80 percent of northern cities – actions considered war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention ratified that year.

Four million people died in the Korean War of 1950–53, most of them Korean civilians. The legacy of that conflict persists today:

  • 60+ years after the hostilities ended with a temporary cease-fire agreement, we’re still waiting for a peace treaty,
  • 10 million families are still separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ),
  • 70 million Koreans live in a state of war due to the unresolved conflict,
  • $1 trillion is spent by the US, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea on militarization, fueled by unresolved conflicts.

The Korean War was incredibly vicious. More bombs were dropped in Korea than on all of Europe during World War II, and it was during this conflict that napalm was first used against civilians. President Harry Truman even threatening to deploy another atomic weapon. Within three months of the war’s onset, 57,000 Korean children were missing and half a million homes were damaged or destroyed.

One year into the war, U.S. Major General Emmett O’Donnell Jr. testified before the Senate, “I would say that … almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name…There were no more targets in Korea.”

It wasn’t until some 4 million people had been killed that the war came to an unresolved end on July 27, 1953 with a temporary armistice signed by the United States, North Korea, and China. South Korea was not a signatory because it had ceded military power to General Douglas MacArthur. A permanent peace agreement never materialized, which means the war is technically still on. Sixty years later, the DMZ, strewn with over 1.2 million land mines, remains the world’s most heavily militarized border, with South Korean, North Korean, and U.S. troops poised for war.

We are facing, once again, perilous times as tensions escalate in the Asia-Pacific. Most western governments and the mainstream media point to North Korea’s nuclear tests and perceived belligerence as the cause of the escalation – when in fact it is caused by two major US foreign policy tactics.

First was the so-called “pivot”. In 2011, the Obama administration announced a plan to transfer significant military resources to Asia and the western Pacific, including expanded bases, surveillance, and equipment. The Pentagon committed to deploying 60 percent of its air and naval forces to the region, including sending US troops to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia. The “pivot” is serving to exacerbate unresolved conflicts from the last century.

Second are the perennial US-ROK joint military exercises against North Korea – which North Korea justifiably views as acts of provocation. The annual US-ROK “Key Resolve/Foal Eagle” war games, usually staged in March, and “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” maneuvers in August, typically last for months and involve tens of thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of South Korean troops. In the exercises, US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, and Space Command forces simulate the overthrow of North Korea’s leadership, the occupation of Pyongyang, and the reunification of the peninsula under US and South Korean control.

When reflecting on the impact of all this militarization, I think about the elderly rice farmers in Pyongtaek who used their bodies to defend their community from being bulldozed to accommodate the expansion of a US military base. I think about the tangerine farmers and women sea divers of Gangjeong village on Jeju island struggling day and night to stop the construction of a US-backed Korean naval base. This is what the militarization of the Korean peninsula looks like, and the road to peace runs through Washington.

Women’s leadership is crucial
The international women’s initiative to end the Korean War has strategic importance for three key reasons. First, the war has a disproportionate impact on the lives of women. As feminists, we know that nationalism, patriarchy, and militarism intersect. The militarization of the peninsula inevitably leads to exaggerated masculinization of society, which increases violence against women, including sexual violence by US servicemen and the reallocation of resources from social welfare towards the military. Furthermore, Korea’s partition has very real consequences for North Korean women, especially those seeking a better life outside of North Korea.

According to estimates by aid workers, 80 to 90 percent of female refugees from North Korea are trafficking victims. At a women’s circle in South Korea, one 19-year-old escapee talked of being raped four times during her journey: once by the Korean Chinese man who promised to find her work in China; a second time by the Chinese man who hid her from the authorities; a third time by the South Korean coyote who brought her into the country; and a fourth time by the South Korean CIA. This she had to endure in order to survive her journey.

Second, women have a special perspective derived from our relationships with family, children and community. That perspective brings the experience of families, women and ordinary citizens into sharper focus in societies burdened by armed conflict. We can provide crucial insights into the day-to-day impacts of ongoing war on peoples’ lives.

Finally, the deadlocked situation calls for game-changers – people outside the structures of military and political power. As women, we can use our ingenuity to go beyond conventional paths outlined and dominated by patriarchal institutions. Women are not held back by limited ideas regarding solutions; we use our imagination and creativity to break through repressive structures.

Bringing an end to the Korean War is central to all of this, with the United States, South Korea and North Korea signing a peace treaty. But it will take more than signing a document to end over half a century of enmity and mistrust; achieving lasting security will require a new approach. It will take women’s leadership, because women realize that genuine security means having health, education, and freedom to live without fear and want. From Ireland to Liberia, women have stood up to end violence and conflict. We can and must do the same for Korea.

Christine AhnChristine Ahn is a founding member of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the decades-old Korean War. In May 2015, she organized women’s peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul; a women’s peace walk on both sides of the DMZ; and a historic crossing from North to South Korea with 30 women peacemakers from 15 countries. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to bring the voices of Korean women calling for lasting peace to the forefront. Ahn is currently a key figure at Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War, a new global campaign of civil society groups educating, organizing and advocating for a Korea peace agreement by 2020. For more information, visit and

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