Sunday, May 24, 2015

Women Activists Cross the DMZ

In a peaceful protest for peace and reunification between North and South Korea, 32 women activists (including two Nobel Peace Laureates - Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee) from various countries marched from North Korea to South Korea across the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The Korean War (1950-1953) was a time when father fought against son, brother against brother, and friend against friend. The war ended, not with peace or a resolution to the ideological conflict, but merely as a cease fire, which means that the two countries are still in a state of war. Over the past 62 years, peace negotiations have failed, cooperation between the two countries has been minimal and very shaky when there was "cooperation", and so women for peace in various countries conceived a march for peace entailing a walk across the icon of separation, the DMZ.

Their initial intent was to walk across the DMZ at Panmunjom, the precise icon flashed in the news with North and South soldiers positioned in a battle-ready stand-off around the clock. North Korea agreed with this; however, South Korea clearly balked with this location for a crossing. They cited the inability to ensure security and strongly suggested the crossing at the Gaesong Industrial Complex where South Korea has factories just over the border in North Korea and a train delivering materials and returning with finished products operates daily. If the women insisted on crossing at Panmunjom, no media would be allowed in the area, and thus there would be no authenticity or documentation of the event. At the last minute, the women marched toward the Gaesong crossing. Security buses also operate between Gaesong and South Korea. The women were allowed in North Korea to start the peace march, but once they reached Gaesong, South Korean security insisted that they cross the DMZ on the security buses. In spite of the lack of feeling the soil in the initial moments of crossing, the women did make the historical border crossing, and according to my photographer friend who was able to obtain a press pass, he and 500 or so other reporters and photographers met the women on the southern side to document this historical moment!

As I was unable to secure the much coveted press pass, I was only allowed as far as the south side of Tongil Bridge, just south of the DMZ. The women were originally to cross on the bridge and I, along with many others, waited hours in the burning sun to document the moment. However, South Korean security again stepped in and rerouted the women to take an alternative road to the open-air stadium at Imjingak where there were gathered a few hundred South Koreans who celebrated the crossing.

Many, many other people would gladly have joined in the crossing celebrations, but South Korean security forbade any media broadcasts of the event and only those well-connected or like me with friends in the press heard about the historical event. I, like others, quickly cancelled plans for the day and came to witness this historical mile marker in the eventual reunification of the separated nations.

Police came out in force on the south side of Tongil Bridge to contain the protesters. Supposedly about 700 protesters gathered to object about the women crossing the DMZ. Fortunately for the police and unfortunately for the protesters, many of the hot and hungry protesters moved off the bridge for a collective lunch but when they tried to return, the police blocked them. In result, only a handful of protesters were actually on the bridge, along with myself who stayed aloof, so not many people (only 15-20) were there to make a show of resistance.

Protesters carried signs, but because their number was so small and the temperature was so high and we waited for hours, there wasn't a very lively protest going on.

I was able to interview various protesting parties. Some of the protesters gathered because when the 32 women were in North Korea, they visited the grave of "Dear Leader" Kim Il Sung and laid flowers at his grave. NK broadcasted that they honored and bowed to him, very controversial but this broadcast did stir up trouble. The protesters were vehement about the 32 women showing any honor or respect to someone who did human experimentations. Others protested the human trafficking and crimes against women, especially of women at the borders. Almost all cited that the women should address the issue of crimes against women and the gulags and imprisonment without transparency before having a peaceful walk. Hmm, from what I read on the women's website ( they said that when a young lady goes out on a first date she doesn't talk about previous dates the guy had but tries to find something in common. I tend to agree with this logic. The protestors' biggest argument was that the women never talked about the crimes of the North Korean nation but only talked about peace. Hmm, we're looking at a forever standoff if people only want to point the finger but never look for mutual ground. Most were there to protest the weapons of mass destruction and North Korea's bullheaded resistance to slow in the development of yet more.

The older generation on the bridge protesting were quite aggressive and at one time about a dozen of them were pushing the police and trying to ram through the police lines to possibly attack or show strong aggression to the peaceful reunification marchers. One young man amongst the protesters was clearly embarrassed, and told me that there was an unmistakable difference in protesting style; the young generation are for logic and expression, the older generation go about it wrong by using force and scare tactics. He told me also there were a number of North Korean refugees who were protesting the march but they had been blocked by the police from getting on Tongil Bridge; evidently they arrived too late and the security was sharp about containing protesters that could get out of control.  My friend later told me 5-6 North Korean refugees actually were able to get to the press pass zone with the intent of disturbing the peace march by throwing eggs or tomatoes; they were found out and escorted away from the peace march area. The peace march, because of very tight security, was just that, peaceful.

Notice the protestors mostly wearing black.
One of the amazing protesters was an 89-year-old Korean War veteran, Lee Kang-sung. I was able to talk with him through a translator and asked why he came out and if he came with anyone. No, he came alone because at least one person has to represent his generation. He came because he strongly wanted to protest all war, and all points of communism. His greatest assertion was, "If I don't protest (the ideology of the North), then the next generation will be under communism." 

As the hour for the women to cross the DMZ approached, the lines of the police were continually redrawn. The people protesting the crossing would be separated from the people supporting the 32 women and reunification. The protesters would stay in front of the police, and the police joined hands to give them strength in holding the protesters away from the reunification marchers, who would pass behind the police.

Evidently what we learned in kindergarten - hold hands and stick together -
also applies for the demonstration police

The marchers for reunification probably numbered close to 600-700. Many carried signs, all wore a number as they had to pre-register in order to participate in this march (otherwise they were forbidden access to the bridge - I was lucky as I came early before the bridge was sealed off from foot traffic). To signify unity beyond just wearing white, many also wore 색동 ( literally 'color stripes') scarves or clothes. This color-pattern is comprised of 5 colors -- white (west), black (north), red (east), blue (south) and yellow (center) -- and the colors together have long tradition in warding off evil spirits. This pattern with its long history is shared by both North and South Korea and so this motif of shared color was the symbol the pro-reunification markers proudly wore. The pro-reunification marchers also tended to wear white, while those protesting organized themselves mostly under the color of black.

Here the pro-reunification marchers are marching in the outside perimeter of the lined-up policemen. The most ardent and active of the protesters was a spry elderly woman of around 65-70 years. She easily jumped up on the guard rail with one of her own signs of protest and waved it while shouting to the reunification marchers. The nearby policemen at first said repeatedly to her, "Grandmother, please get down." "Grandmother, be careful. You will get hurt. " They didn't touch her or disturb her as she didn't cross the line, but at first they clearly worried about her well-being. She ... just ... didn't ... care. She, in her black clothing symbolizing reunification protest, ardently yelled at the opposing side. She even came up to me several times and asked me to speak out ... haha, I don't think she would have liked my position if I would have expressed it. I refused and told her I was just an anthropologist and came only to document.

With permission by the police, I was able to slip from the protester's side to the reunification marchers side and then found myself walking behind a woman wearing a 색동 scarf. I was able to talk for quite a while with her on her and her group's stance for reunification. When I first asked, "Why do you want to reunify?" she was shocked and quickly answered, "Why wouldn't we want to reunify?! We are one people, have the same ancestors, but we were divided against our will by other governments. Of course we want to reunify!" And together we walked off Tongil Bridge to the celebration and speech-making for reunification at Imjingak.

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