Crossings, a film about Women Cross DMZ, by Deann Borshay Liem, launches nationwide in 2022 | By Martha Vickery (Fall 2021 issue)
A new independent film, Crossings, tells the story of a group of international women activists that got worldwide attention when it crossed the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in 2015 on a march to promote peace between the two Koreas.
The group, Women Cross DMZ (WCDMZ) crossed the heavily-guarded boundary on May 24, 2015. The women attended women’s peace events in the North, and participated in a march along the southern DMZ line in South Korea. WCDMZ acted as the human bridge between the women’s peace groups in the two Koreas since neither South nor North Koreans are permitted to cross the DMZ.
The film, by documentary filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem gives a broad historical overview of the division of Korea, and the attempts since the Korean War. It places the activities of WCDMZ in the context of this history. The film opens November 4 at the Hawaii International Film Festival, but screenings and streaming of the film will not be available in other states until 2022.
WCDMZ co-founder Christine Ahn’s voice explains common misconceptions why there is conflict between North Korea and the U.S., including that “Most people believe conflict with North Korea started when North Korea developed nuclear weapons. Actually, the conflict dates back to World War II, when Korean was divided by the U.S. at the 38th parallel and that division line became a temporary demilitarized zone, or DMZ.”
Crossings unpacks some key issues to explain the diplomatic impasse between the U.S. and North Korea today. With narrative and contemporaneous footage, the film describes how the temporary cease fire was never parlayed into a peace treaty. Although the two Koreas have had peace talks and have worked on joint agreements towards peace, notably in both 2000 and 2007, none have led to any permanent change.
Implied, but not stated in Crossings, is that a durable peace requires buy-in from the U.S., which guards the DMZ and maintains ultimate control over the military in South Korea. Since the U.S. has tied the promise of a peace treaty to nuclear disarmament, which is a non-starter for North Korea, the two sides remain at a stalemate.
Ahn’s bold idea, to do something really different to push for peace in Korea, emerged from her education and mentorship by South Korean peace activists starting in the early 2000s. She began to understand Korean history and Korean social movements through these associations, and to realize her own Korean identity, she explains.
Ahn narrates that she decided to go to North Korea “to see these people who were supposed to be my enemy.” In North Korea, she learned how U.S. sanctions are hurting North Koreans, and how many North Korean families are separated from loved ones in the South. “I started wondering if there was a new approach we could try to bring closure to this forgotten war.”
The filmmaker places the emergence of WCDMZ in 2014 during the Obama administration in a hawkish political environment in which there was growing fear of the North’s nuclear missile development. North Korea was vilified in the media. In a news broadcast of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, he says “There is a military option – to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself. If thousands die, they are going to die over there. They are not going to die here.”
Ahn said she first sought the help of famous women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, who agreed to be an honorary chair. Ahn and supporters invited women peace activists from many countries, including two Nobel Peace Laureates, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia. Army Col. Ann Wright, a retired military leader and peace activist, joined the group, along with academics, humanitarian aid workers, faith leaders, and others from a dozen countries. Several Korean American peace activists also joined.
Crossings portrays the color, imagination and uniqueness of the May 24, 2015 peace walk and the people who made it happen. The film also shows how the event attracted attention of the global peace community, as well as the suspicion and anger of right-wing conservatives.
The film captures the thought process of the group, and observes its effort to work through the many international political issues. It also takes a long view of was accomplished by the event in the six years since it happened, which makes this documentary particularly illuminating.
The filmmaker is an expert on this era, having produced two documentaries set in the post-World War II era (Memories of Forgotten War, about Korean divided families; and Geographies of Kinship, about the origins of Korean adoption to the U.S.). Her effective use of historical film footage shows the viewer the violence and destruction of the Korean War, the continued military tension at the DMZ, and the more recent tension-ratcheting joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises in disputed waters off the western coast of North Korea.
Crossings describes, as the years 1948 through 2020 flip by on the screen, how the cause of peace gained and lost ground over the years, depending on the priorities and vagaries of the governments in power.
The film shows, through Ahn and some of the South Korean peace activist partners, how there was a climate of fear in South Korea prior to the 2015 walk. The conservative administration of South Korean President Geun Hae Park had been threatening and imprisoning activists (under South Korea’s National Security Law) and controlling the media.
Jin Ok Kim, from the South Korean Women’s Action group said that, initially, Korean women were critical of these “first-world white women” coming to Korea. However, she said, political activism had been shut down by the Park administration, so the international women activists were needed and appreciated at that moment.
After flying to North Korea through Beijing, the WCDMZ women asked to meet with groups and see sites related to women and children. They tour a maternity hospital, an apartment complex for single women working away from home, and a kindergarten devoted to musical study.
Liem interviews several Americans in the group about their reaction to the performance of five-year-old musicians with poise well beyond their years. Medea Benjamin of the activist group Code Pink, philanthropist and film producer Abigail Disney, and Gloria Steinem all expressed admiration for the children’s talent, but discomfort at the super-rehearsed look of the performances.
Ahn expressed discomfort too, but not because of the performance. The women’s analysis and interpretation prompted a comment on the differences between the two cultures. “Because North Korea is presenting its children to women from countries who look down on them, and are constantly portraying them in a negative light, they are trying to make it look as nice and fancy as possible,” she remarked. “But they went over the top. So much gets in the way of being able to just connect.”
Mimi Han, of the South Korean Women’s Action group, said she was responsible for having YWCA members and supporters sew a chogakbo, a traditional handmade quilt familiar to all Koreans, which became the symbol of WCDMZ. It was begun by more than 1,000 YMCA women and supporters in advance of the event. WCDMZ carried the unfinished chogakbo to North Korea and finished the piece by inviting the activists and North Korean women to hand sew it as a group project. The 30 international women activists wore long scarves with chogakbo geometric printed pattern, a bright contrast to their similar all-white outfits.
The film goes into how the group had to walk a diplomatic tightrope. While in North Korea, the group asks to be excused from obligatory visit to the giant statues of founder Il Sung Kim and his successor and son Jong Il Kim, not wanting to appear to pay homage. The group agrees to visit the Mangyeongdae Park, considered the birthplace of founder Il Sung Kim. At the Mangyeongdae site, although Ahn tells the (North Korean) press a careful and factual statement concerning founder Il Sung Kim (that her mother, who grew up during the Japanese occupation, told her that Kim was a fighter for independence), she was vilified in the South Korean press for praising North Korea.
Interviewed on CNN during the trip by anchor Wolf Blitzer on her alleged praising of North Korea, Ahn said only “I am pro-peace I am pro-engagement, and I am pro-dialogue.”
The film spends some time on the idea of “praising North Korea” and how it is connected with the National Security Law. The law, invented during the administration of South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee, makes it illegal to say or print anything supporting North Korea, or to aide anyone who supports the regime. The law has been unevenly applied in the history of South Korea, sometimes used as a catch-all to arrest any political activist, sometimes ignored entirely. South Korean partners told Ahn they were worried that she could be deported and banned from re-entering South Korea because of the media flurry over the perceived National Security Law infraction.
The group wished to cross the DMZ at Panmunjom, a military installation on the DMZ which is symbolic because the cease-fire was signed there. They were told not to do so by the South Korean side; North Korea was in favor. WCDMZ discussed whether they should cross at Panmunjom anyways, or whether only a few should do it, to avoid exposing the whole group to risk. They ultimately decide to stick together, choosing the safer plan to cross on the main route.
Before the final leg of the trip, they made a last-ditch effort to persuade the U.S. military to allow them to walk over the boundary, but they were denied. On May 24, 2015, the group boarded a bus, went south, and disembarked on the South Korean side, near a processing center in South Korea. Upon arriving at the processing center, their first sight was of right-wing activists, holding signs that read things like “WCDMZ Go to Hell!”
On the advice of the South Korean partners, Ahn did not speak to the hundreds of reporters at the center, many of whom came to hear her version of whether she had praised North Korea. Steinem defended Ahn before the group, telling them that Ahn is a courageous peacemaker, and ordering them to “just cut it out!”
Han, of the South Korean Women’s Action group, said that WCDMZ was distrusted both by the right and left in South Korea, because it was thought that the group could be politically manipulated by both the South and the North. She added that “the fact that the international women’s group can cross the DMZ, and South Korean women cannot do that yet” made WCDMZ’s role very meaningful for their group.
Despite the controversy around Ahn, Han said, about 3,000 women signed up to participate in the South Korea march. After the march was over, WCDMZ’s action “sparked a revitalization of the peace movement in South Korea,” she said.
The film also covers the highlights of interactions between the U.S. and South Korea since the march, which went from bad to worse after 2017, with more provocative joint military exercises in 2017. Trump then threatened North Korea in his “Fire and Fury” speech, when he said that “the U.S. is ready, willing and able” to go to war with North Korea.
The 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, during which North and South Korea fielded several joint teams, ushered in a new era of hope. Later that year, Jong Un Kim and newly-elected South Korean President Jae-in Moon held a summit meeting in the DMZ and walked back and forth across boundary line at Panmunjom. In an interview, Trump asserts that “things have changed radically from a few months ago.”
The film describes that, during 2018 and 2019, both North and South took actions to show peaceful intent. Teams removed land mines in the DMZ, North Korea destroyed a missile testing site, a joint North-South diplomatic office opened at Kaesong, and North Korea allowed family reunions with South Korean family members for the first time in nearly 70 years. “It really felt like the stars were finally aligned and real peace could finally happen,” Ahn said of that time.
The good news continued with the Singapore Summit between the U.S. and North Korea in 2018, when the two sides signed a joint statement, agreeing to peaceful relations, some denuclearization, and the promise to follow up. However, the follow up meeting, a summit in Hanoi in 2019, ended abruptly, with no deal.
After the truncated Singapore meeting, Trump claimed North Korea wanted all sanctions lifted, but North Korean Foreign Minister Yong-ho Ri refuted that account, saying they asked for removal of partial sanctions and had promised to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear production facility.
Ahn’s assessment was that Trump, for some reason, abandoned the “phased approach” to getting to a peace treaty, and was again demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament. “It is the same deal that the two sides have rejected for decades,” she said.
In the wake of this discouraging development, WCDMZ in coalition with South Korean partner organizations, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, launched a new initiative, called Korea Peace Now.
The combined group began to hold educational presentations to teach about developments in the peace process, which continued on Zoom during the pandemic. The film shows Zoom meetings with familiar faces and new ones, as women from many more organizations join the effort. The group decides to focus on pushing for a congressional resolution to demand a peace treaty to end Korean War, an effort that is ongoing today.
Continuing to persuade key political actors on the need for a peace treaty, and obtain broader acceptance and more political will for a peace treaty within the U.S. and globally, is the goal of WCDMZ and Korea Peace Now. It is also about administering diplomacy which is less about the ultimatums and deals, and more about giving women, who have the most at stake in a war, a seat at the peacemaking table.
On the WCDMZ website it states: “At the core, our work isn’t just about ending the Korean War — which technically never ended — but about completely rethinking our approach to peace and security. And to do that, we must look at foreign policy through a gender lens.”
In a post-march interview of the Nobel peace laureate members of WCDMZ, both offered hope, and counseled patience. “In situations where there is deep historical conflict, there is no one solution to it. The walls you first have to work on are the walls in people’s minds,” said Mairead Maguire, who with two other women formed an organization of Catholics and Protestants in the mid-‘70s to end the killing in Northern Ireland.
Leymah Gbowee, who led a non-violent women’s peace initiative that helped to end the civil war in Liberia in 2003, reflected “Activism is a very difficult kind of work. You have to dig deep into all the pessimism that the world throws at you. And find that one light and follow that light.”
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.