Tell us about your journey as an activist and Korean expert.
I was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when I was three. Like many immigrants, I think the process of becoming American is the process of not knowing where you come from. Before heading to Georgetown for my graduate degree, I spent time working at the intersection of anti-globalization, environmental, social and racial justice issues. I had lived in developing countries where I could see the impact of U.S. policies. A few years later, while taking a course at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Robert Gallucci came to speak about his time as Chief U.S. Negotiator with North Korea during the 1994 nuclear crisis under the Clinton Administration. He spoke about a proposed U.S. first strike on Yongbyon meant to destroy North Korea’s nuclear reactors. I sat there astounded – I had no idea the U.S. was so close to war with North Korea. He then shared the remarkable story of how Jimmy Carter went to North Korea with a CNN camera crew and interrupted Clinton’s plans to go to war, ultimately leading to the agreed upon framework which froze North Korea’s nuclear program for over a decade.
Diving into research on North Korea, I wrote a paper that semester that led me to an NPR interview with Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute. He had a quixotic project that analyzed North Korea’s famine in the 1990s. His analysis was that the famine was due to an energy crisis rather than a food crisis. Having a background in sustainable agriculture and the industrialized agricultural system, this analysis made a lot sense to me. That was my gateway into studying, re-learning and understanding North Korea.
Through connecting with Korean Americans, I got a fuller perspective of Korea that is not present in mainstream media or literature. I saw a movement of activists that were part of the pro-democracy movement in South Korea; activists that had been to North Korea, while it’s illegal to do so; activists that were part of the leading edge of so many movements and with a variety of goals. I continue to learn from those who have been involved in struggle, whether it’s advancing the democracy of South Korea, challenging the U.S. militarization of the Korean Peninsula or seeking greater human rights and peace for North Korea.
I think it’s a very special role that Koreans in the diaspora play – we have the fortunate view of having been to North Korea and having family in North Korea and/or South Korea, but we also have access to a bird’s eye view – being in the U.S., within the ‘belly of the beast’. I developed a critical education about U.S. foreign policy while working in other countries and seeing the impact of U.S. foreign policies on those countries.
You focus specifically on the inclusion of women within the Korean peace movement. Why is this so critical for you?
The work I’m doing now is the marriage of two areas of work that I’ve dedicated my life to. I’m the youngest of 10 children – 9 girls and 1 boy. My mother was the breadwinner of the family and kept the family together. Despite being born in Korea’s period of Japanese colonial rule, only receiving a sixth-grade education, living through the war and dictatorship, my mother believed so much in advancing opportunities for her children, especially girls under a very patriarchal society. And so, from a very early age, I developed an awareness of the power of women.
I spent most of my career working in women’s organizations, such as the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland and the Global Fund for Women. By day, I was working in amazing organizations advancing the rights and power of women and gender equality; by night, I was a Korean peace activist. I really felt the importance for there to be Korean voices, not just white men voices, but voices that provide a historical perspective and reveal things we don’t often hear about such as division of families and the humanitarian impact of this war and sanctions. I wanted to put a human face to the repression in South Korea, in addition to North Korea, as a result of the unresolved war.
In 2009 I was working at the Global Fund for Women, managing a project called, “Women Dismantling Militarism”. The project raised money to support grassroots women working in conflict zones. We had just screened the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” about Leymah Gbowee’s peace activism in Liberia. It was so inspiring, and it planted a seed in me. A few nights after, I woke up in the middle of the night and turned on my computer to see an article about the flooding of a river called the Imjin River, which flows through the heart of the Korean Peninsula. There are songs and poems written about this river and a famous poem asks, ‘how come birds can fly over the Imjin River, but I can’t see my loved one?’ North Korea had lifted the floodgates without telling South Korea as all communication between the North and South had shut down and now the river had flooded into South Korea, killing about a dozen people –all because one guy can’t pick up the phone and tell the other guy, ‘we have to lift the floodgates because of food shortages here in North Korea, and if we don’t lift the dam then it’s going to flood our farms in the North, and people are going to die here’ – but they just couldn’t do that. I went back to sleep but I was so angry…and that’s when I had this dream…
…I was waiting in the river. It was right before dawn, there was this glow of light and people were coming down the river – it was such a beautiful scene of family reunions. I wanted to bypass it all and find out where the source of light was coming from. I kept going up the river, and that’s when I came to the source – a circle of women. They were stirring something and whatever it was, they poured it into vessels that became the light that floated on the river. I woke up at that moment, and I said to my husband, “Oh-my-god, I know who will end the war. Women will end the war.” And then I thought, but how are we going to do that? I’m not on the Korean Peninsula, I’m in the U.S. and the U.S. is the largest obstacle to a peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. And that dream, about the power of women, is never far from my mind.
How have women been involved historically in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula – either from the peninsula or in the diaspora?
I got a fellowship at the University of Michigan to study the efforts of North and South Korean women who were building peace across the DMZ – the most fortified border in the world. I was looking at how these women were going to communicate with each other – it’s illegal on both sides. While studying these efforts I interviewed women in South Korea and found that the first meeting of North and South Korean women was convened in 1989 by a Japanese woman of the Diet Parliament who had heard the plea of a South woman who said, “At the root of this arms race is the unresolved Korean War. We need to meet with North Korean women to figure out how to stop this madness.” This woman parliamentarian convened the first meeting in Tokyo in 1991.
When I learned of this, I said, “There is a role. There is a role for women outside of the Korean Peninsula to play, especially in times of impasse.” In 2015, when we did the DMZ walk, there was an impasse. There was no dialogue between North and South Korea. In fact, the end of the sunshine era was really in 2008 when Lee Myung-bak came into power – it was a precipitous fall off a cliff that dropped to no exchanges between the two countries.
Looking back now in South Korean history, I think about the news about “Park Geun-Hye” and the ‘security defense council’ within the Ministry of Defense, which had basically mobilized armored tanks to intentionally quash the candlelight revolution. Park Geun-hye had created a list of 10,000 artists, filmmakers and writers calling them “pro-north” and blacklisting them so that they couldn’t get any government funding. I landed on that list for a travel ban into South Korea. Looking back, that was such a dark period for South Korea, for inter-Korean relations and for U.S./DPRK relations. The ability for Women Cross DMZ to cross the DMZ at such a time was quite extraordinary, and it’s still remarkable to me that we were able to do it.
What do you think made it all possible?
It was because of the women that we were able to do it – the little ways in which we work. Gloria Steinem was a big factor. I called her “The Super” because she had the keys to open many doors and was a huge help. It took an extraordinary behind-the-scenes effort by so many women. That’s who made it all possible.
Do you think it’s critical that women play a unique role in the peace process between the U.S and North Korea?
Women bring up things that most men aren’t talking about. We talk about how to achieve true reconciliation, what kind of healing is needed and how trauma gets passed down generationally. There’s a whole world of things that we want to bring to the table. Women have been socialized to nurture and provide for our families today. For example, I am a feminist and yet I still do most of the nurturing of my daughter. I feel there are ways in which we’ve been socialized and thus think of things that maybe men don’t.
There are also times when women just do the work, which means less masculine energy. Right now, there’s an important conversation that needs to be had because when we say ‘just women need to be at the table’, that’s not true. I don’t want another Hillary Clinton hawkish approach to resolving conflict just to prove that we are masculine and tough with foreign policy and national security. We need to lift the conversation and ask, “what does national security really mean?” How do we define security and move it away from the current understanding of national security under the patriarchal white male gaze? We need to question if we are defending ourselves, or are we arming ourselves in perpetual preparation for war? We need a true feminist vision of national security.
The good news is that understanding is building and it’s based on research and the experiences of women’s peace groups that are mobilizing and active in peace processes and peace agreements. In 2017, the Women, Peace and Security Act, introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), passed with bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate, stating that women should be involved in conflict prevention. So there is an understanding of what should happen – it just hasn’t been implemented yet.
So that’s our challenge right now. We can hear all the niceties about [UN] 1325 and women’s inclusion in peace processes, but we’re still not included. Our theme for women crisis DMZ right now is, ‘From peace walk to peace talk’. We need to gain access to meaningful dialogue and it’s still a huge uphill battle because North Korea controls whether, who and how we have interaction. And the U.S. government has banned U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea unless you get a very special exemption.
It’s 2018, nearly 70 years after the Korean War and still everything is so controlled by the governments. We have to keep pushing for women to have a seat at the table. That is the only way we’ll truly gain the understanding to finally resolve this conflict. Our goal is a peace treaty, but we also need to understand and actually hear each other. We need to come together with ideas about what the peace treaty should entail, and what will lead to true reconciliation and true people-to-people understanding.
How do you feel patriarchy has painted the conflict within the Korean Peninsula and the U.S.?
We’re dealing with the most patriarchal governments right now. The Trump administration doesn’t even try! You look at cabinet meetings – it’s all white men. Constantly we see these South Korean delegations – all men. Strangely enough, some of the leading figures from the North Korean side have been women, but still, we’re dealing with three patriarchal regimes in the U.S., South Korea and North Korea.
What gives you hope for women’s involvement?
It seems impenetrable right now, but I think we have a strategy to lean on. Some of the countries that are strong allies of the U.S. and South Korea – Canada, Norway, Sweden and of course the U.N – have feminists board policies to help push for women’s inclusion.
And there are some positive developments. The mere fact that Women Cross DMZ was in South Korea in May, calling for women’s inclusion Is one such development. Since then, the South Korean Women’s Peace Movement announced a Women’s Peace Network of national organizations to promote the inter-Korean peace process and women’s inclusion. Additionally, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs formed a Gender Advisory Committee to help define and commit to the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Twenty-one women were identified for that committee, including many of the women with whom we have been working closely.
There is some progress and we have yet to see what the North Koreans are proposing, but we are still going to march forward. We’re going to propose several meetings – Northeast Asia Women, Peace and Security Roundtables. We want to ensure the inclusion of women from the entire region because so much of progress in the Korean Peninsula is very much tied to progress in other nearby countries such as China, Russia, Japan and Mongolia. These conversations can offer a women-centered vision of what a peace treaty could and should look like while pressing for women’s inclusion. We’re in a new day – last year we were hoping to prevent a war and all of a sudden, we are in this new moment. Still, the process is fragile. We can’t put all of our hope in the ‘goodwill’ of our leaders to see through an end to this war or denuclearization.
It’s going to take a wider and more diverse process and we now have evidence that shows that when women are included, it leads to a peace agreement and a far more durable one. We have the ingenuity, the creativity and the wisdom. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to intersect with the official process to demand a seat at the table.
What’s next for you?
Women Cross DMZ is launching a campaign for a woman-led peace treaty. We received $2 million from the NoVo fund’s global competition called “The Radical Hope Fund”. We were 1 of 17 awarded for a 2020 women-led peace treaty campaign. Women Cross DMZ, the Nobel Women’s Initiative and WILPF are launching this campaign together, targeting the U.S., the UN and other key countries.
Christine Ahn, a Korean-American now living in Hawaii, is a true expert on the conflict facing the Korean Peninsula. Spending her career committed to human rights and social justice, Ahn has addressed the United Nations, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission, as well as the U.S. Congress. She is the founder and coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, the organization which serves as a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families, and ensure women’s leadership in peace building. With Women Cross DMZ, Ahn led an international delegation of women to march alongside 10,000 Korean women as they crossed the 38th parallel from North Korea to South Korea in 2015. She also co-founded the Korea Policy Institute, the National Campaign to End the Korean War and the Korea Peace Network. Her interviews and Op Eds have appeared in a wide variety of media sources including Democracy Now!, CNN, BBC, the New York Times, and many others. She continues to work to ensure that women are involved in the North Korean – U.S. peace building process and she is committed to achieving sustainable peace for the Korean peninsula that alleviates some of the devastating threats of nuclear war.