On May 24, 30 feminist peace activists with truly remarkable peace-building qualifications crossed the heavily fortified inter-Korean border in protest of the state of war. Christine Ahn, co-organizer of WomenCross DMZ (WC), stresses their "enormous collective experience in conflict resolution, human rights, foreign policy, international relations and de-militarization." Many notable dignitaries of peace endorse WC.
Western news coverage has nevertheless been "extremely critical," as Daniel Pinkston wrote in Politico. Notable examples include Craig Urquhart's two long NK News articles (here and here), which expand upon the criticisms levied by two Foreign Policy pieces (here and here) co-authored by Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein.
These three authors describe WC participants as misled or deluded by leftist or anti-American ideology. They supposedly acted as "tools" of the North Korean government and Ahn in particular is derided as pro-North Korea and anti-human rights. Gregory Elich in Monthly Review identifies the ad hominem and ignoratio elenchi fallacies behind labeling Ahn a "sympathizer" and juxtaposing WC's advocacy with DPRK human rights violations.
This rhetoric serves to distract audiences from WC's real contentions: That peace is fundamental to improving the human rights and general welfare of North Koreans while reducing the dangers, masculinism and economic costs of militarism for all parties.
INTRODUCING FEMINIST PEACE ADVOCACY
Feminists have a special understanding of power asymmetry and its consequences. They see how perceptions of gender are a function of asymmetrical power relations. They advocate for the disadvantaged against those who set the parameters of debate.
In a similar way, our knowledge of North Korea is produced and disseminated almost entirely by the proponents of its adversaries. WC therefore eschews a binary perspective of North Korean wickedness and Western superiority. Their advocacy stresses how militarism perpetuates masculinized thinking with disproportionately negative consequences for women.
Effective feminist advocacy must seek to change public perceptions, to promulgate the beliefs of a small community of activist women against the mainstream. Feminists have historically endured opposition not only from most men, but many women as well. There would never have been a suffrage movement if feminists began from a position of "objectivity" in the sense of balancing their advocacy with already-established views on gender. Feminist peace activists are therefore less likely to be persuaded by claims of "bias" against the intrinsic moral superiority of Western nations when it is these countries that set the parameters of legitimate debate on state morality.
Suzy Kim notes the "unconscious sexism that women are naive" behind the belittling and dismissal of WC, typically by men with far lesser conflict resolution qualifications. If male Nobel Laureates like Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan led the group, she writes, would they be so easily cast as pawns?
SUFFERING AND THE STATE OF WAR
WC participants are well-aware that North Korea is committing serious human rights violations. They have said so explicitly here and here. WC simply chose not to propagate human rights in a context where North Korea is already defined by brutality and this is habitually mobilized against engagement.
Urquhart suggests WC participants are uniquely motivated by ideological self-interest. This is an absurd charge in this highly politicized field, where virtually all relevant Western interests are aligned against normalization. Ann Wright, a former U.S. Army colonel, emphasizes the "cottage industry" that develops around the human rights violations of America's enemies and how their interests are aligned against the resolution of conflicts. "We must be very careful in the West when we look from outside and know nothing about a society," Mairead Maguire said. In Northern Ireland, "if I (we) had listened to all that propaganda, we still would be killing one another and not talking to each other."
Halvorssen and Gladstein's charge that WC is premised on "moral relativism" is simply incorrect. WC took a clear moral position: "Human rights and peace are integral one to the other. Neither is more important than the other; they proceed together."
Maguire asserts peace as a "necessary foundation to have human rights." Jodie Evans writes that the conflict justifies regional militarization and squanders resources. Kozue Akibayashi is explicit: "The human rights abuses in North Korea, which we strongly condemn, need to be viewed through the lens of the consequences of a highly militarized society where the priorities of the military outweigh the basic needs of its people." She also emphasizes the Japanese colonial legacy. "Loss of memory is the root of oppression," as Gloria Steinem put it.
North Korean human rights experts and salient defectors, by contrast, tend to see human rights violations as unrelated to the state of war. They seemingly contend that peace will prolong or even exacerbate violations.
Urquhart claims unequivocally and without evidence that, "A peace treaty has nothing to do with torture and arbitrary imprisonment." It is interesting that he gives South Korean democratization as evidence. South Korea was among the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships in Asia during the early Cold War. It took 35 years for democratization -- and there are still anti-human rights vestiges of the state of war on its books.