On Sunday 24 March, a global group of female peace activists crossed the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Led by American feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist of some notoriety for alleged excuse-making for Pyongyang, the march stirred up a surprisingly sharp debate among Korea analysts and sparked a backlash rally by South Korean conservatives.
I argued against the march and received hate-mail for it (best put-down: 'your stuff is older than Kim Il Sung's rusty pistol'), while anti-march protesters told the marchers to 'go to hell'. For something so apparently minor and innocuous – I strongly doubt the march will open the North or change the basic confrontationalism of the South – the whole debate got remarkably heated. For a good case in favour of the march, try this; for the case against, go here.
I see four undercurrents that led to this surprising outburst from all sides.
1. Traditional democratic right-left Cold War divisions remain alive and well in the Korea debate
In the West, much of the debate over how to respond to communism has faded into intellectual history. That acrimonious and largely unresolved split between right and left has, thankfully for all, receded.
But in South Korea, it feels like time stands still: it is still 1982, with an evil empire, replete with gulags and economic collapse, threatening nuclear war, and all the McCarthyite paranoia that breeds in response. Just as in the West a generation ago, conservatives here see the left as appeasers, if not traitors, while left-wing parties think the South Korean right is unhinged and bellicose, driving North Korea into belligerence.
Most notable to me is the replication on the left here of almost exactly the same tortured debate on communism which roiled the Western European left throughout the Cold War: is recognition 'appeasement'?; a persistent admiration of socialism 'in theory' while 'real-existing socialism' is grudgingly rejected; a far-left party that is openly pro-communist; the constant challenge at the ballot box to convince voters they are not tools of Moscow/Pyongyang; and so on. The march has brought these underlying divisions forcefully to light.
2. Moral equivalence is the main challenge to the march
My primary concern throughout the march debate was the appearance of moral equivalence between the two Koreas regarding both culpability for the continuing division, and the moral character of the competing regimes. Ahn has spoken of 'parity' between them. In reality, North Korea is the worse on both counts, and that cannot be re-stated often enough (a point I tried hard to make in my Al Jazeera English interview on this).
Fault for the continuing division today lies almost exclusively with North Korea, or to be more specific, a North Korean elite terrified of post-unification justice and the loss of their privileges, if not lives. During the Cold War, culpability was arguably equal, as each camp sought a different version of Korea that had some ideological defensibility. But today, that is long over. All the other Cold War-divided states (Germany, Yemen, Vietnam) are re-united, and the bankruptcy of the socialist alternative is apparent in all those cases, as it is in Korea. There is really no reason anymore for North Korea to exist. The game is over. The steady hemorrhage of North Koreans out of country against enormous odds, the gulags, and the massive internal military presence all suggest domestic illegitimacy. Given a chance to vote freely, is there any doubt North Koreans would choose other leaders, if not unity with happier, freer, wealthier South?
Similarly, the North and South are not morally analogous competitor regimes which deserve a similar chastising. South Korea is easily the better place on almost every conceivable vector, including importantly, the one privileged by the marchers themselves – the treatment of women. Does it need to be said that South Korea has elections, a free press, due process (nothing like the songbun system or the gulags of the North), a female president, and so on? Given how obvious this is, I found it worrisome that the marchers ducked these obvious distinctions in their various press conferences.
3. The North regularly instrumentalises prestigious foreigners for regime legitimacy
North Korea, like East Germany before it, has long struggled to attain global legitimacy against what came in time to be seen as the 'real' Korea (or Germany). One East German stratagem was the global attention gained from Olympics victories, leading to the world's most notorious doping program in the 1970s and 80s. In a similar vein, North Korea seeks at every turn to accumulate and record prestigious foreign personages and institutions interacting with the regime in such a way that implies its existence is legitimate. The Kumusan 'Palace of the Sun' (the 'sun' being the Kim family) houses a large collection of foreign recognitions, as does the Juche Tower. This is likely the reason why North Kora seeks out high-profile US visits when US citizens are taken hostage (and why such visits are so rare). Even 'useful idiot' Dennis Rodman served this purpose.
In the case of the marchers, critics assumed the North would try to attribute sympathetic comments to them, which it did. This has led to a predictable argument over who said and did what. For example, the North claims the marchers labelled the US 'a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human rights abuses,' which Ahn has had to publicly deny. That a high profile personality like Steinem, with her moral credibility, would flirt with such predictable manipulations is unhelpful.
4. North Korea's terrible record on gender and sexuality heighten the march's contradictions
Not only is North Korea the world's worst human rights violator, a point indisputably established by last year's UN report which likened its internal repression to the Nazis, but it is particularly harsh for women. The general culture is deeply Confucian patriarchic (habits that are slowly [too slowly] eroding in South Korea). Pyongyang elites – party, military, Kimist – are nearly all male, and they enjoy the services of the notorious 'joy brigade' as well.
Far worse, the treatment of women in the gulags is appalling, almost certainly meriting ICC prosecution – rape, sexual abuse, and infanticide are now well established facts. The terrible exploitation of Northern women continues should they escape North Korea. North Korean women are trafficked in China to pay for their and their families' escape.
This raises yet another credibility issue for the marchers, with their pointed focus on the role of women. The most damning criticism I have read of the march came from Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition: 'If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ' (in reference to the trafficking issue).
This march will do little to alter the geopolitics of the peninsula, which has been locked in for decades. But high-powered feminist attention could have done a lot to press China for better treatment of North Korea female escapees. A missed opportunity...