Our world is overflowing with mind-numbing acts of brutality that civilized people had come to assume had been consigned to the history of the Middle Ages. Women are too often the first to be brutalized. In Nigeria, Boko Haram extremists kidnapped hundreds of girls. In Iraq, hundreds and possibly thousands of Yazidi girls and women were abducted, enslaved, abused or slaughtered. Elsewhere, women of Christian, Muslim, atheist and other beliefs continue to be targets of unspeakable crimes and humiliations. Beyond an occasional hashtag campaign, the world has done precious little to come to their rescue.
Now comes word that a group of activists, led by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, will take action in an effort to change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Their purpose? To bring a formal end to the Korean War through the Women Cross DMZ peace march.
A noble goal. After all, no people has suffered greater human rights abuses in recent decades than the North Koreans. The activists have announced plans to march next month from Pyongyang through the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and on to Seoul.
Since the 1953 armistice, the DMZ has tragically divided an old and noble nation. Despite its name, the 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ is among the world’s most heavily militarized borders. Stone-faced soldiers face each other across fields saturated with landmines. On the north side of the tightly patrolled cement barricades, most of North Korea’s million-strong ground forces are forward-deployed, ready to attack. To the south, 620,000 South Korean and 28,500 U.S. troops stand ready to repel any invasion.
The activists’ crossing could only be undertaken with Pyongyang’s consent. But approval of a “peace march” is paradoxical for such a military-first regime. All that South Korea has seen coming across the land and maritime borders between the two in recent years has been bellicosity and bullets, including the March 2010 sinking of a navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors and the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four. If Pyongyang truly is interested in a peace gesture, it might start by releasing hundreds of South Korean POWs, now in their 80s and 90s, who were never allowed to return to their loved ones after the armistice.
We would urge Steinem and company to review last year’s scrupulously investigated U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, which determined that crimes against humanity have long been committed as a matter of state policy in North Korea. Those most vulnerable to these policies are North Korean women, and many are murdered by this merciless regime. In North Korea’s political prison camps and other detention facilities, starvation, humiliation and exploitation of women is rampant. Women have been subjected to medical and poison gas experimentation. They suffer forced abortions and can be coerced to witness the infanticide of their babies. Sexual violence is common.
We desperately need the voices of feminists protesting the murder, torture and exploitation of North Korean women by their own government. But any sanctioning of a peace march by North Korea can be nothing but human rights theater intended to cover up its death camps and crimes against humanity.
Steinem is no Dennis Rodman, and that’s a good thing. She has earned the respect of millions by standing up for the rights of women for decades. But that’s what makes the current plan all the more outrageous and dangerous.
We urge Steinem and anyone else seeking to shake up the status quo on the Korean peninsula to march not from Pyongyang to the DMZ but instead to stage a protest at China’s border with North Korea, which so many North Koreans attempt to cross in a desperate bid to escape their repression. It may not yield immediate results, but it would put Pyongyang on notice that the vanguards of international civil society stand in solidarity with the abused, not the abusers.
Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Greg Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.