Two years ago, I crossed the world’s most fortified border from North to South Korea with 30 women peacemakers from 15 countries, calling for a peace treaty to end the six-decade Korean War. On July 13, I was denied entry into South Korea from the United States as retribution for my peace activism, including the 2015 women’s peace march.
As I checked in for my Asiana Airlines flight to Shanghai at San Francisco International Airport, the ticket agent at the counter informed me that I would not be boarding the plane headed first to Seoul Incheon International. The supervisor handed me back my passport and informed me that she had just gotten off the phone with a South Korean government official who had told her I was “denied entry” into the country.
“This must be a mistake,” I said. “Is South Korea really going to ban me because I organized a women’s peace walk across the demilitarized zone?” I asked, appealing to her conscience. If there was indeed a travel ban, I thought, it must have been put in place by the disgraced President Park. But she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. She walked away and said there was nothing to be done. I would need to apply for a visa and book a new flight to Shanghai. I did, but before I boarded my flight, I spoke with veteran journalists Tim Shorrock of The Nation and Choe Sang-hun of the New York Times.
When I landed in Shanghai, along with my travel companion Ann Wright, retired US Army Colonel and former US diplomat, we reached out to our networks, from congressional offices to high-level contacts at the United Nations to the powerful and connected women who marched with us across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in 2015.
Within hours, Mairead Maguire, the Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Gloria Steinem sent emails urging the South Korean ambassador to the US, Ahn Ho-young, to reconsider their travel ban. “I could not forgive myself if I did not do everything I can to keep Christine from being punished for an act of patriotism and love that should be rewarded,” Gloria wrote. They both highlighted how the travel ban would preclude me from attending a meeting convened by South Korean women’s peace organizations on July 27, the anniversary of the ceasefire that halted, but did not formally end, the Korean War.
According to the New York Times, which broke the story, I was denied entry on the grounds that I could “hurt the national interests and public safety.” The travel ban was instituted in 2015 during the administration of Park Geun-hye, the impeached president now in prison on charges of massive corruption, including creating a blacklist of 10,000 writers and artists critical of the administration’s policies and labeled “pro-North Korean.”
In 24 hours, after massive public outcry — including even from my critics — the newly elected Moon administration lifted the travel ban. Not only would I be able to return to Seoul, where I was born and where my parents’ ashes lie near a Buddhist temple in the surrounding Bukhansan mountains, I would be able to continue working with South Korean women peacemakers to achieve our common goal: to end the Korean War with a peace treaty.
The swift lifting of the ban signaled a new day on the Korean Peninsula with a more democratic and transparent South Korea, but also the real prospects of achieving a peace agreement with President Moon [Jae-in] in power.
Unanimous Calls for Korean Peace Treaty
On July 7, in Berlin, Germany, ahead of the G20 Summit, President Moon called for “a peace treaty joined by all relevant parties at the end of the Korean War to settle a lasting peace on the peninsula.” South Korea has now joined North Korea and China in calling for a peace treaty to address the longstanding conflict.
Moon’s Berlin speech followed on the heels of his summit in Washington, where Moon apparently received the blessings of President Trump to resume inter-Korean dialogue. “I am ready to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at any time and any place,” Moon declared, if the conditions were right. In a significant departure from his hardline predecessors, Moon clarified, “We do not want North Korea to collapse, nor will we seek any form of unification by absorption.”
In a Blue House report (equivalent to a White House paper) released on July 19, Moon outlined 100 tasks he plans to accomplish during his single five-year term. Foremost on his list included signing a peace treaty by 2020 and the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. In a pivot towards regaining full South Korean sovereignty, Moon also included negotiating the early return of wartime military operational control from the United States. It also included ambitious economic and development plans that could be moved forward if inter-Korean dialogues proceed, such as building an energy belt along both coasts of the Korean Peninsula that would link the divided country, and reinstating inter-Korean markets.
While these goals may seem incredible in the hardened terrain between the two Koreas, they are possible, particularly given Moon’s pragmatic emphasis on diplomacy, dialogue and people-to-people engagement, from family reunions to civil society exchanges, to humanitarian aid to military-to-military talks. On Tuesday, he proposed talks with North Korea at the DMZ to discuss these issues, though Pyongyang has yet to respond.
President Moon’s mother was born in the north before Korea was divided. She now lives in South Korea and remains separated from her sister, who lives in North Korea. Not only does Moon understand deeply the pain and suffering of the estimated 60,000 remaining divided families in South Korea, he knows from his experience as the chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun (2002-2007), the last liberal South Korean president, that inter-Korean progress can only go so far without the formal resolution of the Korean War between the United States and North Korea. Recognizing this, Moon now faces the daunting challenge of mending inter-Korean ties that have unraveled over the past decade and building a bridge between Washington and Pyongyang that has collapsed over two previous US administrations.
Women: Key to Reaching a Peace Accord
With South Korea, North Korea and China all calling for a peace treaty, it is worth noting that women are now in key foreign ministry posts in those countries. In a groundbreaking move, Moon appointed the first female foreign minister in South Korean history: Kang Kyung-hwa, a seasoned politician with a decorated career at the United Nations. Appointed by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Kang served as deputy high commissioner for human rights and assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs before becoming a senior policy adviser to the new UN chief António Guterres.
In Pyongyang, the lead North Korean negotiator with American officials in dialogues with former US officials is Choe Son-hui, director general for North American affairs in the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Choe was supposed to meet a bi-partisan delegation of US officials from the Obama and Bush administrations in New York this March before the meeting was scuttled. Choe served as an aide and interpreter for the Six-Party Talks and other high-level meetings with US officials, including the August 2009 trip to Pyongyang by President Bill Clinton. She was the adviser and interpreter for the late Kim Kye-gwan, the chief North Korean nuclear negotiator.
Meanwhile, in China, Fu Ying is chairperson [of the Foreign Affairs Committee] of the National People’s Congress. She led the Chinese delegation to the Six-Party Talks in the mid-2000s that yielded a temporary diplomatic breakthrough to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. In a recent piece for the Brookings Institution, Fu posited, “To open the rusty lock of the Korean nuclear issue, we should look for the right key.” Fu believes the key is the “suspension for suspension” proposal by China, which calls for freezing North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile program in exchange for halting the US-South Korean military exercises. This proposal, first introduced by the North Koreans in 2015, is now also backed by Russia and is being seriously considered by South Korea.
Kang, Choe and Fu all share a similar trajectory in their rise to power — they started their careers as English interpreters for high-level foreign ministry meetings. They all have children, and balance their families with their demanding careers. While we should have no illusions that a peace deal is guaranteed just because these women are in power, the fact that women are even in these top foreign ministry positions creates a rare historic alignment and opportunity.
What we do know from three decades of experience is that a peace agreement is more likely with the active involvement of women’s peace groups in the peacebuilding process. According to a major study covering 30 years of 40 peace processes in 35 countries, an agreement was reached in all but one case when women’s groups directly influenced the peace process. Their participation also led to higher rates of implementation and durability of the agreements. From 1989-2011, of 182 signed peace agreements, an agreement was 35 percent more likely to last 15 years if women participated in its creation.
If there ever was a time when women’s peace groups must work across boundaries, it is now, when multiple barriers — language, culture and ideology — make it that much easier for misunderstanding to prevail, and dangerous miscalculations to take place, paving the way for governments to declare war. At our July 27 meeting in Seoul, we hope to start outlining a regional peace mechanism or process whereby women’s peace groups from South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States could actively contribute to the official governmental peace-building process.
Broad Support for Peace
Clearly, the missing piece in this puzzle is the United States, where Trump has only surrounded himself with white men, mostly military generals, with the exception of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, whose statements on North Korea — as well as virtually every other country — have set back international diplomatic efforts.
While the Trump administration may not yet be calling for a peace treaty, a growing circle of elites are calling for engaging in direct talks with Pyongyang to halt North Korea’s long-range missile program before it could strike the US mainland. A bipartisan letter to Trump signed by six former US government officials spanning over 30 years urged, “Talking is not a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. It is a necessary step to establishing communication to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.” Without stating support for China’s call for “suspension for suspension,” the letter warned that despite sanctions and isolation, North Korea is advancing in its missile and nuclear technology. “Without a diplomatic effort to stop its progress, there is little doubt that it will develop a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States.”
This builds on a letter to Trump signed in June by 64 Congressional Democrats urging direct talks with North Korea to avert an “unimaginable conflict.” The letter was co-led by John Conyers, one of two remaining congressmen who served in the Korean War. “As someone who has watched this conflict evolve since I was sent to Korea as a young Army Lieutenant,” Conyers said, “it is a reckless, inexperienced move to threaten military action that could end in devastation instead of pursuing vigorous diplomacy.”
These major shifts in Washington reflect a growing consensus among the public: Americans want peace with North Korea. According to a May Economist/YouGov poll, 60 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, support direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. On the day of the Moon-Trump summit, nearly a dozen national civic organizations, including Win Without War and CREDO [Action], delivered a petition to Moon signed by more than 150,000 Americans offering strong support for his commitment to diplomacy with North Korea.
The US government divided the Korean Peninsula (with the former Soviet Union) and signed the armistice agreement promising to return to talks in 90 days to negotiate a permanent peace settlement. The US government has a moral and legal responsibility to end the Korean War with a peace treaty.
With Moon in power in South Korea and pro-diplomacy women in key foreign ministry posts in the region, the prospects for reaching a peace agreement are hopeful. Now, US peace movements must push for an end to the Obama administration’s failed policy of Strategic Patience — and push back against the Trump administration’s threats of military escalation.
Ahead of his Senate briefing in the White House, more than 200 women leaders from over 40 countries — including North and South Korea — urged Trump to sign a peace treaty that would lead to greater security for the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia region and halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
As our letter states, “Peace is the most powerful deterrent of all.”