Seoul, South Korea – The high-profile crossing of the inter-Korean demilitarised zone by a group of international women peace activists has shone a renewed spotlight on why the Korean War never officially ended – but has also sparked controversy among southern conservatives who accuse the women of touting Pyongyang’s line.
After arriving at Dora-san Station in South Korea on May 24, the 30 women, hailing from 15 nations, said the reason for their symbolic trip across the inter-Korean border was peace and reconciliation.
|Women peace activists cross the border|
At a press conference, they called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US President Barack Obama and the leadership of the two Koreas to expedite a peace treaty to bring closure to the 1950-53 conflict.
“We came to end this war,” added Liberian Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Asked by reporters about human rights inside North Korea, a fellow Nobel peace laureate reinforced the theme of ending the war.
“Our opinion on human rights is we want to see a world without war, based on international law,” said Mairead Maguire, a leader in the peace movement in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
“You can get human rights when you get a normal situation, not a war,” Maguire said.
‘You are unqualified’
However, the women’s position was disputed by a noisy group of conservative demonstrators awaiting the women at Imjin-gak.
This South Korean complex just south of the border encompasses a DMZ observatory, a collection of war material including tanks, jets and artillery and a children’s funfair.
Holding up posters of North Korea’s strategic weapons programmes, as well as placards reading, “Don’t say peace, you are unqualified!” “Women Cross [sic] Go to Hell!” and “You are a tool of…” with a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the protesters were prevented from reaching the women, who attended a “peace festival” in Imjin-gak’s sculpture park, by coachloads of riot police blocking the access road.
“I don’t like the way these ladies participate in this kind of propaganda event,” said Lee Dong-bok, a retired national assemblyman who joined the rally.
“They are ‘useful idiots’ for the North Korean regime,” he said of the activists.
Regardless of the sentiments of Lee and fellow thinkers, it is difficult to refute the utter failure of diplomats and politicians in related capitals to resolve the Korean War.
It is almost a cliché in media reports on inter-Korean tensions to note that the war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
But the issue of any potential peace treaty is complicated by diplomatic, historical and strategic reasons. “A peace treaty between who?” scoffed Lee, regarding the women’s plea.
Only three of the war’s major belligerents – China, North Korea and the United States – signed the July 27, 1953 armistice, the document that was designed to insure, “a complete cessation of hostilities … until a final peaceful settlement”.
South Korea was not a signatory.
Then-South Korean President Rhee Syngman was adamant that the war should only end with the peninsula under his rule, and in June 1953, released 27,000 communist POWs from camps in his territory – a move that endangered the imminent armistice and infuriated US officials.
Following intense negotiations, Washington pressured Seoul to agree to the US signing the armistice on behalf of South Korea, in return for American economic and military assistance.
A key reason many South Koreans oppose the women activists’ position is that demands for a peace treaty with the US have been frequently voiced by Pyongyang’s diplomats and by its editorials in state-run media.
As South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice, this demand is problematic for Seoul – today a democratic state that is a far cry from both the authoritarian South Korea of the war years and also from the dictatorial North Korea of the present – which sees little benefit in granting Pyongyang’s wish.
The question is why not have a peace treaty - isn't it self-evident?
“I think North Korea wants a peace treaty because they want security guarantees from the US,” said Choi Jin-wook, a senior North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification.
“Also, they claim that North Korea is the single legitimate country on the Korea peninsula, they claim it was a war between the US and the Korean people, who are represented by North Korea – so North Korea is legitimate and South Korea is a ‘puppet state’.”
While most historians agree that Pyongyang launched the war, North Korean propaganda insists that it was actually started by Seoul and Washington.
Aside from issues of historical and political legitimacy, there may be another reason why Pyongyang wants a treaty and why Seoul and Washington do not, said Mike Breen, a biographer of Kim Jong-il.
“The question is why not have a peace treaty – isn’t it self-evident?” said the Seoul-based author.
“But the irony is, I think, that a peace treaty would change nothing, and the North Koreans would feel they have a much stronger argument to get American troops out of South Korea.”
Although there are no Chinese soldiers deployed in the North, some 28,000 US service personnel remain stationed in the South.
Their presence is a direct by-product of the Seoul-Washington agreements of 1953, and Pyongyang frequently finds the GIs’ presence provocative, notably during annual exercises each spring.
Further clouding any potential discussion over a peace treaty is intense resistance within both Seoul and Washington towards Pyongyang’s strategic missile and nuclear programmes – top-priority issues which dominate the allies’ diplomatic approach towards North Korea.
Given the various complications, then, the women’s high-profile intervention may be a lone cry in the wilderness.
“It is a first step in the right direction,” said Ghowee, the Liberian Nobel laureate of the women’s intention.
But it was only, she added, “a little step”.