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Activists Cross The DMZ In Controversial Peace Demonstration


Famed American feminist Gloria Steinem has taken her activism to a most unusual place. Today, Steinem and other international activists crossed the fortified border between North and South Korea known as the DMZ. It was a symbolic gesture aimed at reunifying two nations still technically at war. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu was there. She joins us now. So, Elise, you went to the border. Describe the scene. What was going on?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, when the women actually crossed the border itself, it was actually quite quiet because they crossed by bus. But after they got to the South Korean side, there's a peace park right inside the DMZ. They were met by hundreds of South Korean women who embraced them and walked with them along a barbed wire fence. So lots of media and throngs of police were around, but it was a pretty emotional moment for the women themselves.

MARTIN: What has motivated this? What was this march all about?

HU: It's mainly about attention and calling attention to what the women say is this absurd notion that these nations are still fighting the Cold War. So they set up this walk from North to South really as a symbolic gesture, doing something that regular Koreans can't do, which is cross the border with permission from both governments. And the delegation, which includes women from 15 different countries, they also got a rare green light from the north to actually start in Pyongyang and then come down south. But it's kicked up a lot of controversy.

MARTIN: This is a conflict, as you know, that has existed for decades. North Korea has a long history of human rights abuses. It is one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the world. What difference does Gloria Steinem and her activist colleagues - what difference do they think they can actually make in this?

HU: Well, for one, they really just want both countries to kind of start by having some dialogue. And they figured that all the attention they could draw to this walk itself could begin some conversations between North and South. Really, the only dialogue between North and South that this has resulted in so far is just logistics really - talking about how this bus was going to go from south to north to pick up the women and bring them across the border.

MARTIN: So you mentioned that there were some South Korean women who had joined Gloria Steinem in this. Has the reception overall been welcome? I mean, are - how do South Koreans feel about this gesture?

HU: Well, the reaction south of the border has actually been quite mixed. These women were met by several protesters, and these protesters essentially argue, which some human rights groups internationally also say, that North Korea doesn't do anything unless it benefits the North Korean regime. So they think the women are being used as pawns for the government. And this controversy actually got even more heated earlier this week when North Korean state media quoted some of these women as praising the country's first Communist dictator, Kim Il-sung.

MARTIN: Elise Hu just returned from the DMZ. She is our correspondent based in Seoul. Elise, thanks so much.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.