Gloria Steinem has landed… in Pyongyang. From there she plans to head south and on Sunday lead a group of women’s rights activists in a peace march — pardon me, an “historic” peace march (have you noticed that everything done these days in the name of peace is dubbed “historic”?) — across the Demilitarized Zone, from North to South Korea.
Organized by a group called Women Demilitarize the Zone, this march is meant to help end the unresolved Korean War, reunify the peninsula, reunite divided families and nudge North and South toward peace.
As a self-serving publicity stunt, this exercise has already been something of a success. It has netted the 81-year-old Steinem more news coverage than she usually gets these days (though not quite as much as Dennis Rodman enjoyed during his Pyongyang phase). And I think we can safely assume that for the participants in the march, it will be a gratifying tour of some fascinating parts of the Korean peninsula, including the DMZ — during which they can congratulate themselves that they are not only serving the cause of peace, but providing a feminist counterpoint to all those armed men facing off across the Zone. The governments of both North and South Korea have agreed to permit the march; peace events are planned on both sides of the DMZ, and presumably the historic peace marchers will cross the DMZ along a carefully selected route that will be misleadingly free of land mines.
As Steinem explained her DMZ project in an interview published May 1 in the Washington Post:
“There is no substitute for putting your bodies where your concerns are…in my experience conflicts are far more likely to be solved when people sit down together… you have to be together with all five senses in order to produce the oxytocin that allows us to empathize with each other.”
These are excellent points if the aim is for Gloria Steinem and her co-marchers to enjoy their visit to the Korean peninsula. But they are at best an absurd gloss on the realities of the scene, in which the nuclear-testing missile-building repressive and murderous regime of North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies, deployed chiefly along the DMZ, with artillery threatening Seoul. The problem on the Korean peninsula is not a dearth of oxytocin, but a totalitarian government in North Korea, facing off against a democratic system in the South. There are plenty of people in both North and South Korea who would like to see the peninsula reunified. The sticking points are, on what terms? Which system prevails? At what cost? Who wins?
On that score, this Sunday’s planned procession across the DMZ does plenty for Pyongyang and less than nothing for peace. It might more accurately be called a march of moral equivalency. The marchers are endeavoring to treat the governments of Pyongyang and Seoul as equals, telling the Associated Press, “There is nothing in this action that prioritizes one government over another.”
Steinem herself made a comment in her interview with the Washington Post that illustrates neatly just how muddled a mission she is leading. She compared the march of these international peacewomen to President Reagan’s famous words addressed in 1987 to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” According to Steinem, “We’re essentially doing the same thing.”
Really? Reagan did not arrive at the Berlin Wall via a regime-neutral trip to Moscow, or a march across the Wall from East Berlin, endeavoring not to prioritize one government over another. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire, ratcheted up the arms race, deployed Pershing II missiles to Europe, and described his Cold War strategy for peace as “We win, they lose.”
If Gloria Steinem and her fellow peace activists want to try some variation on that in the middle of the DMZ (or, more prudently, on the south side of the demarcation zone), they’d be making a genuine and honest contribution toward a better future for the Korean people, both North and South.
As it is, while doing Kim Jong Un the favor of putting him on a par with the elected government of Seoul, and staging a Potemkin peace march across the DMZ, they are doing a great disservice to women in general — whom they purport to represent. How does it advance the cause of women’s rights to stage a spectacle in which a group of oxytocin-charged women perform as Pyongyang’s useful idiots?