PYONGYANG, North Korea – A group of female activists, including Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, said Friday they will go ahead with their plan to walk across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas despite reluctance by officials to guarantee their safety and criticism they are being used as propaganda tools by North Korea's government.
The rare crossing of the DMZ is to take place Sunday.
The group of 30 women from 15 countries will not go through the symbolic truce village of Panmunjom, where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, because officials in South Korea and the United Nations Command responsible for security in the area said they could not guarantee the group's safety. Instead, the women will take a route that links the two Koreas to the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint North-South business venture near the border.
Despite the last-minute change, members of the group said they feel the crossing in itself is a breakthrough.
"We bought one-way tickets for Pyongyang not even knowing whether we would need to fly back to Beijing," said Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel laureate from Liberia. "Not only have we received the blessing for our historic crossing, we've gotten both Korean governments to communicate. That is a success."
North and South Korea have technically been in a state of conflict since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Their border along the DMZ is one of the most heavily fortified in the world. There is little direct contact between the two Koreas and, with few exceptions, it is considered a crime for citizens of either country to cross the DMZ.
The plan to walk across the DMZ, which organizers say is intended to start a dialogue and bring international attention to the need for a formal end to the Korean War and the peninsula's division, has been controversial. It has also been looked at very differently in the North and South.
On Thursday, North Korean state media reported on a peace symposium held by the women in Pyongyang with representatives of North Korean women's groups, saying they branded the U.S. "a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human rights abuses" — words none of the international group's speakers used, though many did criticize U.S. military policies around the world.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, meanwhile, picking up on the North Korean reports, quoted academics in the South as saying the group's activities would not help efforts to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program or improve its human rights record.
"Those words were never uttered," organizer Christine Ahn, a Korean-American peace activist, said in Pyongyang when asked about the North Korean characterization of the group's statements. "We spoke about the impact of militarism around the world, including in Liberia, Colombia, Japan, northern Ireland as well as the United States. We are operating in an environment where multiple sides will take our words out of context to advance their political agendas."
The difficulty Ahn's group faces underscores concerns that even a minor misstep at Panmunjom, where North and South Korean soldiers stand guard within shouting distance of each other, could quickly escalate into a major incident. Kaesong, on the other hand, is the site of a joint North-South industrial complex and that route has immigration and customs facilities.
"We have accomplished what we set out to do — to walk across the DMZ on behalf of both North and South Korean women. They cannot walk, so we must," said Steinem, 81, an iconic figure in the United States for her role in the women's rights movement. "Over 60 years of silence has not worked. Why not try human contact?"
After the crossing, the group also plans to hold a peace walk and a symposium in South Korea.