Activists cross inter-Korean DMZ on wheels, not foot

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– Group promoting peace and women’s rights by marching across heavily guarded border forced to take bus.

By Alex Jensen

SEOUL – Activists from 15 countries completed their plan to cross the heavily guarded inter-Korean border Sunday, according to local news agency Yonhap – but had to do so by bus rather than on foot as they had hoped.

The group of 30 women, including women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, were met by United Nations Command officials as they crossed from North Korea into the 4-kilometer-deep demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the reclusive state from South Korea.

Hundreds of thousands of troops surround the DMZ on both sides, as an ongoing reminder of the division that remains in place decades after the close of the Korean War in 1953.

Steinem and her companions – among whom were also Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire – arrived in Pyongyang last Tuesday having received permission from both Koreas to march across the border Sunday, which marked International Women’s Day for Disarmament.

Seoul suggested that they use the western corridor rather than the iconic truce village of Panmunjom, which doubles as a tourist attraction. On the day itself, however, the activists had to settle for a bus ride before resuming their march on the South Korean side.

The group was set to meet female civilians in the South, having done the same in North Korea.

Steinem, 81, told reporters in the North that the group was marching for those women who were not able to do so themselves.

Koreans require special permission to cross the border, and even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was recently denied access by Pyongyang.

Once in the South, Steinem celebrated the activists’ role as “citizens’ diplomats,” while also telling a media briefing that they had made a “trip for peace, for reconciliation, and for human rights.”

But conservative protesters in South Korea gathered at the border to rally against the march.

Some opponents accused the group of failing to sufficiently highlight North Korea’s human rights record.

The North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported last week that the travelling women “praised” the country’s first leader and founder – Kim Il-sung – a claim that was vehemently protested by Steinem Sunday.

Seoul had earlier expressed concern that Pyongyang might try to exploit the march for its own advantage.

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