On October 15, Mt. Kumkang will get a pleasant surprise as more than 600 women from North and South Korea flock to it for the First South-North Korea Womens Reunification Rally since the nation was divided. The event is particularly significant in that it was organized and masterminded by women.
Few are aware that women first started civilian exchanges between the two Koreas. The momentous occasion was the seminar on Peace in Asia and the Role of Women, held in Japan in 1991. The next seminar was held the following year in Pyongyang, for which South Korean civilians crossed Panmunjeom for the first time, although this event is also not well known to the general public. Based on their discussions about womens roles for peace in Asia, the women of North and South Korea have been engaged in active exchanges since then, related to such issues as sexual slavery by the Japanese military.
It was these past exchanges that made possible the joint celebration of National Foundation Day on October 3, which will be joined by about a dozen South Korean women including Go Gi Hyo, chair of the Womens Committee of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation. The women met their North Korean counterparts and discovered many differences as well as similarities as women. It is this kind of sharing that has provided the impetus for women to think of reunification in more concrete terms and to search for a reunification movement that was more grounded in real life.
How far has womens awareness regarding reunification reached? According to a survey conducted by the Women for Peace Society in 1999, 86.5% of the 1,012 women over 19 who responded felt that they should have a participatory role in bringing about peaceful reunification. This is concrete proof that women are not passive or uninterested in the reunification movement.
Then what kind of reunification do women want? According to another survey conducted on 1,000 women above 20 in 1998, this time by the Korean Federation of Housewives Clubs, the reason for wanting reunification chosen by the most women, or 38.9%, is to resolve war tensions and bring peace on the Korean peninsula. This shows that women desire reunification for the peace it brings rather than for the sake of uniting people of the same race. In fact, the reunification movement led by women can be largely divided into civilian exchanges and education on peace and reunification. Lee Kim Hyun-Sook, co-representative of the Women for Peace Society, explains, The reunification movement must start from acknowledging the differences between North and South Korea and giving up hostile feelings. The main characteristic of the women-led reunification movement is that it is a movement for inter-Korean reconciliation based on reconciliation and healing.
Despite all this, why is it that women have not been recognized in the reunification movement? The movement had hitherto developed into a political issue focusing on the method of national reunification, making it difficult for women, who concentrate more on peaceful exchanges, to have much influence. Furthermore, exchanges so far have mainly been in the economic sector, restricting the space for women, who have relatively little economic clout, to make their voices heard. In explaining the reasons behind the lack of womens participation in policy discussions or movement for reunification, Jeong Hyun Baek, co-representative of the Korea Womens Association United (KWAU), says, The patriarchal society strengthened by Confucius traditions and national division has regarded the issue of reunification as a mens domain and excluded the participation of women.
As womens awareness and willingness to participate rises, noteworthy aspects of their activities are increasing as well. Because women have a greater desire for social equity and fairness, they expand greater energy on activities that win public sympathy and support. They sincerely approach the lives of the North Korean people based on education that nurtures an understanding of the differences between the two Koreas. Such efforts form the quintessence of the women-led reunification movement. Good examples are campaigns to learn the truth about North Korean society, help North Korean compatriots, support women North Korean defectors, and conduct regular peace education programs. Education programs on peace and reunification conducted by organizations such as the Women for Peace Society and YWCA have been particularly helpful in getting the people to realize that reunification is more closely related to their lives than they had thought. The same goes for civilian exchanges. If the South-North Korea Womens Reunification Rally to be held next month becomes a regular event, it will serve as a launching pad for facilitating greater civilian exchanges.
Women for Peace Society representative Lee Kim Huyn-Sook, who also heads the South Korean delegation to the Rally, says, We plan to expand the rally to gatherings in a variety of fields. We will first concentrate on meetings among women economists, journalists and academics, and later gradually widen the scope. And above all, the Rally itself will continue to be held.