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Opinion

Korean peace process must include women to be truly sustainable

Economic development and humanitarian relief languish as conflict continues

North Korean women are unable to access the health care, food and jobs they need to survive.   © Reuters

Now that hawkish U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has gone, and with him urgency for conflict with North Korea, talks may resume between Washington and Pyongyang.

With the window for diplomatic success narrow, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and I traveled last week to the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to draw attention to three actions that could be taken now by the Trump administration to reach an agreement with North Korea.

This is not just important for the security of Koreans and people in the region, but would have particular benefits for the women of North Korea, who have long suffered under the unresolved Korean War.

First, the U.S. must declare an end to the Korean War -- there was an armistice in 1953 but no official peace -- and begin the process of negotiating a permanent peace settlement.

One year ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed the Pyongyang Declaration, which outlined practical steps toward improving inter-Korean relations, so that Korea could become a "land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats."

Moon Jae-in, left, and Kim Jong Un signed the Pyongyang Declaration one year ago.   © Reuters

But today the Korean Peninsula remains divided; the Korean War remains unresolved; and there is no peace, not between the two Koreas or between the U.S. and North Korea. Although the overwhelming majority of South Koreans want an end to the Korean War, peace is being held hostage by the lack of progress between the U.S. and North Korea.

"Despite the efforts of Korean peoples' movements and our governments -- including two signed agreements in Panmunjom and Pyongyang declaring an end to the Korean War -- we still do not have peace," says South Korean feminist leader Mimi Han. "We want peace, but we cannot do it. We need approval."

A second action for the U.S. is supporting economic development by lifting sanctions that impede inter-Korean economic engagement. A central part of the Pyongyang Declaration was to revive inter-Korean economic cooperation that had been halted by former South Korean President Park Geun-hye as retaliation against North Korea for testing nuclear weapons.

Kim and Moon promised to advance exchanges and cooperation based on the "spirit of mutual benefit and shared prosperity," including linking Korean railroads disconnected since the Korean War, reopening the Kaesong joint industrial complex and Mt. Geumgang tourism resort, and establishing economic zones along the western and eastern corridors.

Yet the Trump administration is blocking the advancement of such projects with its "maximum pressure" campaign, saying such initiatives violate sanctions.

Crushing sanctions against North Korea have not yielded the desired outcome of forcing North Korea's denuclearization. What they have led to is North Korea's extreme isolation, hindering long-standing humanitarian operations and leading to a near-total ban on North Korea-related trade, investment and financial transactions.

Because of the sanctions, North Korean women are unable to access the health care, food and jobs they need to survive. For example, 2017 U.N. Security Council sanctions ban the export of textiles from North Korea.

But who works at these factories? According to Dr. Kevin Gray, who is a professor of political economy at the University of Sussex in the U.K., 86% of the approximately 400,000 textile workers are women.

86% of the approximately 400,000 textile workers are women.   © AP

Another pillar of the Pyongyang Declaration was to fundamentally resolve the tragedy of separated families by opening a permanent reunion facility at Mt. Geumgang and begin video meetings managed by the Red Cross.

Thousands of Korean elders die each year without seeing their siblings, children and grandchildren. As Mimi Han told me, "My grandmother was one of them -- she died wishing to see her hometown."

The final, vital action for the U.S. to ensure that an agreement is reached is inviting women's peace movements to the negotiating table. A study of 40 peace processes over the last three decades, from Liberia to Northern Ireland, showed that in all but one case, when women's groups were able to effectively influence a peace process, an agreement was almost always reached.

There are now nine U.N. Security Council resolutions advancing an agenda on Women, Peace and Security, including a groundbreaking one from 2000 mandating women's inclusion in peace processes. There are also Women, Peace and Security National Action Plans in 82 countries, including in the U.S. signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. It's time to take those agreements off paper and into action.

Women must be included in the peace process not just because it is grounded in international law or because they are disproportionately impacted by war. Since the Korean War, women have been on the front lines calling for an end to war and militarism.

Although there are very few women involved in the official Korea peace process, there are thousands of women on the Korean Peninsula and around the world working together to support this historic peace process.

"We know that unless we act, from taking to the streets to lobbying members of Congress and ourselves crossing the DMZ, there will be no durable, lasting peace," says Steinem. "Peace is like a tree. It does not grow from the top down, it grows from the bottom up."

Christine Ahn is the founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ and international coordinator of the Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War global campaign.

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