Women crossing the DMZ in 2015, South Korea. Image: Women Cross DMZ

Women in the Room Where It Happens

A missed opportunity: the lack of women in official inter-Korean peace processes

By Christine Ahn

"The past of no contact with North Korea has not worked. We feel that it is important to try reaching out, friendship, contact, walking, doing with our physical selves what we hope can be done politically." – Gloria Steinem

In one year, the world witnessed the prospect of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula turn into awe-inspiring peacemaking by Korean leaders. Now, a historic opportunity to end the seven-decade Korean War is within reach. The majority of South Koreans want a peace agreement to end the Korean War.1 But peacemaking between the Koreas alone is not enough. The United States must also establish peace with North Korea.

A peace agreement would reduce the prospect of another Korean War and set the stage for normalized peaceful relations between North Korea and South Korea, and with the United States. For this process to succeed, women must be included. Groundbreaking research indicates that the participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, make a peace agreement 35 percent more likely to succeed, and that when women participate in peace processes, resulting agreements are more durable.2

Despite this, there are very few women involved in official inter-Korean peace processes. This is a missed opportunity for a lasting peace agreement. It’s crucial that those activists who have engaged with North Koreans through citizen diplomacy, humanitarian aid and educational exchanges – especially women activists – be at the table to reach a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement.

We at Women Cross DMZ believe that the success of any Korean peace process hinges on two key ingredients: a permanent peace settlement to replace the Armistice Agreement signed by the United States, North Korea and China in 1953 and the inclusion of women at all levels of the peace process.

Two significant developments during the Trump administration have impacted our work. One, in June 2018 President Trump met with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un – the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader. They committed to improve relations, establish a peace regime, work toward denuclearization and to repatriate the remains of fallen US servicemen from the Korean War. Two, President Trump signed into law the bipartisan Women, Peace, and Security Act (2017), making clear that meaningfully including women in preventing, ending and rebuilding after conflict is consistent with and supportive of US foreign policy.3

The way forward has been difficult, however. The Trump administration weighed a "bloody nose strike" on North Korea, which could trigger a war that would kill hundreds of thousands of people, and impact millions, including 28,500 US troops and their families in South Korea.4 While Korean leaders have pursued normalization, the Trump administration reverted to its rhetoric of "maximum pressure" by imposing new sanctions, prolonging the US travel ban to North Korea and impeding US civil society humanitarian operations. US policymakers across the political spectrum, from Senator Lindsey Graham to Ambassador Joseph Yun (former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy) continue to resist calls for peace, arguing that signing a peace agreement with North Korea would grant the Kim regime the right to become a nuclear weapons state.5

But a peace agreement could help defuse tensions by serving as a crucial security guarantee to a country that has long justified its nuclear weapons development on the unended state of war with the United States. Both North Korean and US officials have gone on record noting the importance of a peace treaty to provide a baseline for relationships.6 To break the impasse in this historic window, women’s inclusion in the peace process offers the best chance for negotiating a positive outcome.

Korean War’s Disproportionate Impact on Women

From 1950-1953, the Korean War claimed 4 million lives from those who fought and those who lived there, with at least 2 million estimated to be Korean civilians.7

US bombing campaigns flattened 80 percent of North Korean cities, dropping more bombs than in the Asia-Pacific in WWII and splattering more napalm than in Vietnam.8 On July 27, 1953, the Korean War ended in a stalemate when military commanders signed the Armistice Agreement.9 The agreement promised a conference within three months "to settle…questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question."10 This never happened and, as such, a state of war has defined US-North Korea relations for 70 years.

No women were consulted on the decisions resulting in the Korean War. Yet it has been well documented that war – both during armed conflict and after – differently and unequally impacts women, especially in sexual violence.11 According to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000), "civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict."12 No one was immune to the devastation of the Korean War, but women disproportionately carried the brunt of helping their families survive the devastation at home and in their communities.

Today, women in North and South Korea are continually impacted by the war’s legacy, whether through international sanctions or various forms of violence against vulnerable populations.13 Despite this, there is a paucity of women involved in inter- Korean peace delegations: in 2000, only one out of 24 delegates were women, and in 2018, none of the 51 were women.14 However, Korean women have been on the forefront of the movement calling for peace to the conflict, being the first to cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to inspire reunification.

Like all Korean families, mine was uprooted by multigenerational chaos sown by colonialism, division and war. My parents were born during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, lived through the indignation of not being able to speak Korean at school or read Korean in publications, and were forced to adopt Japanese names. Although my mother’s grandfather was a provincial governor of Pyongyang and her father a Kaesong merchant, she always proudly claimed that her hometown was Seoul, given the tremendous redbaiting of anyone with familial ties to the North. With 10 children – nine girls and one boy – my parents struggled to make ends meet in a postwar Korean economy and society. The path out of poverty, like with many South Koreans, was to emigrate, with all the challenges of assimilating culturally in a foreign land.

At Georgetown University, I learned from Ambassador Robert Gallucci that the Clinton administration almost waged a first strike on North Korea, which began my long journey to understand the forgotten Korean War. Through leading peace and humanitarian delegations to North and South Korea, where I met with ordinary civilians, I could see with my own eyes and feel the pain in my heart the enormous suffering caused by the unresolved war and division. As an American citizen of Korean descent, I felt I had a responsibility to help bring closure to this war and heal the division.

As the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division approached, I founded Women Cross DMZ to organize a DMZ crossing to call for the reunion of separated families, women’s leadership in peacebuilding and an end to the Korean War. On May 24, 2015, with 30 women peacemakers from 16 countries, I led a peace walk with 10,000 Korean women on both sides of the DMZ. In Pyongyang under the Reunification Tower depicting two women holding up the Korean Peninsula, Gloria Steinem invited "all concerned to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, one marked by dialogue, understanding and – ultimately – forgiveness."

At our peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul, the international delegates listened to Korean women share how the unresolved conflict impacted their lives. In Pyongyang, Ri Ok Hui shared her experience as a seven-year-old girl during the war, when she lost both hands after being shot at by US soldiers as she tried to escape. With tears, Ri said, "If there is another war here, women and children will suffer the most."

The resulting 2015 International Women’s Declaration listed reasons for our walking: to unite Korean families tragically separated by an artificial, unwanted division; to lessen military tensions on the Korean Peninsula; and to urge leaders to redirect funds devoted to armaments toward improving people’s welfare and protecting the environment.15 But most of all, we walked to end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty.16 These calls to action remain true today.

The Path Forward

Moving forward, as a Korea peace process unfolds, Women Cross DMZ is committed to ensuring that the Trump administration upholds their commitment codified in the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act. Recognizing the historic opportunity we now have to end the seven- decade Korean War, women globally are leading the calls for a Korea peace treaty. In coalition with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and South Korean women’s peace organizations, we are launching a 2020 Women-Led Korea Peace Treaty Campaign.

We urge President Trump to do what no US president has done: end the longest standing US conflict. In the process of doing so, the administration must abide by US commitments to UNSC 1325 and the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act and include women at all stages. The administration should model meaningful inclusion within its own negotiating team, engage US women’s groups with a track record working with North Koreans, invite representatives of Korean women’s organizations working on the Korea peace process to brief senior officials at the US Embassy in Seoul, and support the efforts of women peacebuilders from the region to convene, especially by eliminating the travel ban.

On the Hill, in addition to restricting the president’s ability to initiate war with North Korea, members of Congress can introduce a resolution urging the formal declaration to end the Korean War. Members of Congress can invite women activists already bridging the divide between countries to testify in hearings or briefings, and they can dialogue with South Korean members of Parliament to explore together how women can be more actively involved in both official and unofficial peace processes.

Diplomacy is the only way to resolve the nuclear crisis and end the Korean War. While our primary goal is a permanent Korea peace settlement, our larger aim is to shift the "national security" discourse away from a militaristic paradigm and toward a vision of a feminist foreign policy that focuses on genuine human security, justice, ecological sustainability and peace. We will also continue to press for women’s inclusion in the Korea peace process by modeling what a more inclusive process would look like, setting our own table by continuing to bring women together from the two Koreas with women from the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other key countries.

Despite high-profile exceptions, women largely have been kept outside the center of power and rarely been included in positions of authority, particularly in the Korean context. As a result, they have used strategic and creative approaches to bring attention to issues of war and peace, such as crossing the DMZ to raise global awareness about the insanity of a 70-year war that has torn homes and families apart for three generations. Looking forward, peace will be the most powerful deterrent of all, and women the most powerful agents for its delivery.17


Christine Ahn is the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families and ensure women’s leadership in peacebuilding. She is the co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute, Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island and the Korea Peace Network. She has organized peace and humanitarian aid delegations to North and South Korea, and has spoken in Congress, the United Nations, Canadian Parliament and the Republic of Korea National Commission on Human Rights. She was formerly the senior policy analyst at the Global Fund for Women from 2008 to 2013 and has previously worked with the Oakland Institute, Grassroots Global Justice, Institute for Food and Development Policy and Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development.

This article is part of our new report, "A New Vision: Gender. Justice. National Security." See all the articles from our report here.  

The United States must also establish peace with North Korea, #NewVision2019 @ChristineAhn.

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1 According to a September 29, 2018 poll by the Institute of Korean Society and Opinion, nine out of ten South Koreans support an end of the Korean War declaration. It found that 72 percent support corresponding measures by the United States, including the lifting of economic sanctions.; Jeong Chan.“Declaration of the end of the second round of the North American summit ‘Pros 86.4%> Opposition 10.9%” Polynews, Jan.10, 2018, http://www.polinews.co.kr/news/article.html?no=368548.

2 Marie O’Reilly, Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, and Thania Paffenh. “Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes,” (International Peace Institute, 2015), https://www.ipinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/IPI-E-pub-Reimagining-Peacemaking.pdf; “Facts and Figures,” UN Women, accessed December 7, 2018, http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/peace-and-security/facts-and-figures.

3 Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, S. 1141, 115th Congr. 1st Sess., Congressional Record, https://inclusivesecurity.us4.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f28209b9247faafc1caa37f33&id=24e0fab3bf&e=36dfeb04fa.

4 US Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: Military Options and Issues for Congress, by Kathleen J. McInnis et al., R44994 (2017), 57, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R44994.pdf.

5 Uri Friedman. “Lindsey Graham to Trump: Make North Korea Choose Between ‘Death or Condos’” The Atlantic, Oct. 4, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/10/lindsey-graham-still-north-korea-hawk/572188/; Andy Laub. “The Slippery Slope of Signing a Korean Peace Treaty” Political Insights, June 21, 2018, https://politicalinsights.org/2018/06/21/the-slippery-slope-of-signing-a-korean-peace-treaty/.

6 Foster Klug. “North Korea foreign minister: Peace possible, but only if US ends hostility” Military Times, Sept. 30, 2018, https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2018/09/30/north-korea-foreign-minister-peace-possible-but-only-if-us-ends-hostility/; John McGlynn and Nan Kim, “Factsheet: West Sea Crisis in Korea,” The Asia Pacific Journal, 8, 49, no. 1 (2010), https://apjjf.org/-John-McGlynn/3452/article.html.

7 Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History (New York, NY: Modern Library of The Random House Publishing Group, 2010): 35.

8 Charles K. Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960,” The Asia Pacific Journal, 7, 0, (2009), https://apjjf.org/-Charles-K.-Armstrong/3460/article.html.

9 The Korea War Armistice Agreement, Panmunjom, Korea, July 27, 1953, http://www.usfk.mil/Portals/105/Documents/SOFA/G_Armistice_Agreement.pdf.

10 The Korea War Armistice Agreement, Panmunjom, Korea, July 27, 1953, http://www.usfk.mil/Portals/105/Documents/SOFA/G_Armistice_Agreement.pdf.

11 "Women, Peace, and Security," United Nations, 2002, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/eWPS.pdf.

12 "Resolution 1325," United Nations Security Council, 2000, http://www.un-documents.net/sr1325.htm.

13 Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae. “Where are many women? In the mood of reconciliation between the two Koreas, uncomfortable truths” Oh my news, Oct. 16, 2018, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002478050.

14 Ahn-Kim Jeong-ae. “Where are many women? In the mood of reconciliation between the two Koreas, uncomfortable truths” Oh my news, Oct. 16, 2018, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002478050.

15 "Declaration of 2015 International Women’s Walk for Peace & Reunification of Korea," Women Cross DMZ, accessed December 7, 2018, https://www.womencrossdmz.org/our-story/declaration-of-2015-international-womens-walk-for-peace-reunification-of-korea/.

16 "Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State (1953)" Ourdocuments.gov, accessed December 7, 2018, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=85.

17 Choe Sang-Hun. “Fearing Korean Nuclear War, Women of 40 Nations Urge Trump to Seek Peace” New York Times, Apr. 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/world/asia/north-korea-trump-nuclear-war.html.


Photo: Women crossing the DMZ in 2015, South Korea. Image: Women Cross DMZ