Donald Trump may face a lot of skepticism as he gets ready to head to Vietnam and meet Kim Jong Un, but he has the unlikely support of groups he’d otherwise scarcely see on his side: peace activists. In particular, an influential, international group of women activists, known as Women Cross DMZ.
The group was started in 2015 by women of Korean origin as well as ones from a dozen other countries, many of whom had long been involved in Korean policy and peace and reunification advocacy. It takes its name from a successful campaign it ran in 2015, when 30 of its members, from 15 countries, crossed the military barrier that divides the two Koreas, with the aim of drawing attention on the “forgotten” Korean conflict. The organization held parallel peace walks attended by thousands of women in Pyongyang, in Kaesong (the historical capital of Korea, now in North Korea), and in Paju, the South Korean city closest to the DMZ, and attracted high-profile support including from Ban Ki-moon, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.
The members of the all-female group range widely in nationality and profile. Alongside Nobel peace laureates such as Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire are prominent activists like Gloria Steinem and Code Pink co-founders Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, as well as Korean-American academics, social activists, and refugees including Chung Hyun Kyung, Jean Chung, Suzy Kim, and Deann Borshay Liem. In addition, the organization’s founder Christine Ahn told Quartz, supporters include South and North Korean grandmothers, mothers, and daughters living on either side of the border as well as abroad: They are all tired of a conflict that has been dragging on for seven decades, and are united in demanding peace, safety, and to be reunited with their families across the DMZ.
So what, they say, if the end of the longest conflict of the past century—over 68 years, and counting—happens at the hand of the most unlikely American president?
The wrong man at the right time
Things have changed rather dramatically in the four years since the walk across DMZ, says Ahn, who also co-founded the Korea Policy Institute, which focuses on research and analysis of US policy on the Korean peninsula. What then seemed like a forgotten conflict has gained much visibility, and where there didn’t seem to be an opening for peace negotiations there now is one. The change of leadership in South Korea, where president Park Geun-hye was succeeded by Moon Jae-in, ushered in new possibilities: Park, whose father Chung-hee had been a military dictator, had authoritarian tendencies (for instance, she had compiled a blacklist of 10,000 South Koreas artists who had been critical to the administration and had been accused of having sympathizing tendencies towards North Korea, banning them from government work), while Moon is far more open to the possibility of negotiations, as the steps taken toward Kim Jong Un have shown.
Further, the people involved want an end to a war that, while a temporary armistice has been in place since 1953, has never officially ended.
A formal peace treaty has long been the desire of North Koreans, who have been living under violent dictatorship, and suffering decades of unspeakable deprivations following the end of the Cold War, cut off from the rest of the world and without access to many basic goods, including food and medicine.
In South Korea, where life is much different and the country has enjoyed significant economic growth, the time is ripe for a peace agreement, too: According to recent polls, 80% of South Koreans are in favor of a formal end to the conflict, and after the first meeting between Kim and Moon, the percentage of South Koreans saying they trust the North Korean leader jumped from 10% to 78%. This puts Trump in a position to take advantage of an opportunity that Barack Obama never had access to, given the souring of inter-Korean relations between 2007 and 2017. He will, Ahn thinks, seize the opportunity, if nothing else because it will allow him to claim a history-making legacy.
“Trump is not the ideal person conducting the negotiations,” says Ahn, “but he can do what no other president has done, which is to end this war.”
Can North Korea be trusted?
Amongst those who are critical of Trump’s conciliatory initiative, one of the main criticisms is that he didn’t get enough of a commitment in denuclearization the last time around, and that since he met with Kim, North Korea as actually continued to work on its nuclear program. Yet, Women Cross the DMZ believes this isn’t a fair criticism: Kim never committed to denuclearization in the first place.
In fact, Ahn says, the narrative that Kim is unpredictable is somewhat untruthful: North Korea’s position, she says, has long been pretty clear: “[Kim] wants an end to the war,” she says, adding that even his predecessors Kim-Jong-il and Kim Il-sung did. Kim, she says, is undoubtedly a dictator, but when it comes to relations with South Korea and the US, “Most analysts will say North Korea is a rational actor.” Kim doesn’t want the country to have the same fate of countries such as Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, and its nuclear proliferation program is primarily about regime survival, to maintain some leverage after the country lost the essential economic and political support of the USSR.
After the latest summit, Kim did stick to its side of the agreement, sending back the remains of soldiers and ending the missile tests, says Ahn. Further, in the new year’s speech, he didn’t make any mention of nuclear testing, a stark contrast with the previous years, which is promising for the next step of the negotiations.
Do we negotiate with dictators?
Many high-profile US diplomats and analysts agree that there is an important opening for negotiations—and that is what should be done, negotiate. Among them are former director of US intelligence James Clapper, former defense secretary Bill Perry, and former president Jimmy Carter, who first reduced the presence of US troops in South Korea in 1977.
It is unrealistic to expect North Korea to give up its nuclear program before an official end to the war is declared, and the US could take further steps to show its willingness to cooperate with Pyongyang: Normalizing diplomatic relationships, lifting sanctions, and perhaps even revising Trump’s travel ban against North Korea could all be important signals that the will to find a common ground is genuine, says Ahn.
Then there is the issue of family reunification: Families are perhaps the biggest casualty of this long war, and many Koreans on either side of the border continue to pay in their personal lives the consequences of the Cold War. But similarly, notes Ahn, there are at least 100,000 Korean-Americans—many in their 80s or 90s—who haven’t been able to see their relatives in North Korea in decades: Allowing travel and family reunification would send an important message of peace, she says.
No men alone
Trump may be the man who finally gets this conflict to an end—and Ahn believes that a peace declaration may even be on the table in Hanoi. But this doesn’t mean he can be trusted to drive home the best deal, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing the rights of women or families. This is where Women Cross DMZ’s support for the deal turns into activism: Ahn and other women from the organization are heading to Hanoi to demand peace, but also that the delegations involved in making a deal feature members of civil societies, and women.
So far the delegations have featured exclusively high-level officials—and no gender diversity to speak of. But, Ahn notes, many studies have shown that involving women and civil societies in the peace process leads to more solid, longer lasting results.
Peace is within reach, says Ahn, but it needs people-to-people engagement to be a successful process. And though the current leaders will do when it comes to signing the actual peace declaration, “we can’t just leave [the terms] into the hands of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.”