The South Korean Government Tried to Ban This Peace Activist. Here’s What She Has to Say.

Christine Ahn calls for a real end to the Korean War—and for women to lead the way to peace.

Sarah Lazare

Christine Ahn, along with other activists, marches to the Imjingak Pavilion along the military wire fences near the border village of Panmunjom on May 24, 2015 in Paju, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Chris­tine Ahn is a South Korea-born, Hawaii-based peace activist. In 2015, she orga­nized 30 women from around the world to march across the two-mile-wide, heav­i­ly mil­i­ta­rized bor­der zone between North and South Korea as a sym­bol­ic act of peace.”

Ahn now finds her­self in the crosshairs of flar­ing geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions over the entrenched Kore­an War. On July 13, she learned that she was banned from South Korea after being turned away from an Asiana Air­lines flight from San Fran­cis­co to Chi­na, because it would pass through the Incheon Inter­na­tion­al Air­port on the out­skirts of Seoul.

Fol­low­ing media cov­er­age of her pro­hi­bi­tion, and out­cry from her sup­port­ers, the ban was over­turned, mean­ing that Ahn will now be allowed to enter the coun­try of her birth after all.

As the glob­al coor­di­na­tor for Women Cross DMZ,” this is not the first time that Ahn has faced blow­back: She has repeat­ed­ly been tar­get­ed by right-wing, defam­a­to­ry attacks.

Nonethe­less, she says she is deter­mined to step up her peace activism. In the com­ing weeks, Ahn is plan­ning to trav­el to South Korea to par­tic­i­pate in an inter­na­tion­al peace del­e­ga­tion, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump strikes a more bel­li­cose tone towards North Korea and U.S. law­mak­ers move to esca­late sanc­tions, which were already severe under Pres­i­dent Obama.

Ahn spoke to In These Times from Nan­jing, Chi­na about what it was like to find her­self at the cen­ter of this geopo­lit­i­cal tug of war and why now is a crit­i­cal time for women to lead the way to build­ing inter­na­tion­al peace.

Sarah Lazare: Why do you think the South Kore­an gov­ern­ment ini­tial­ly pro­hib­it­ed you from enter­ing the country?

Chris­tine Ahn: We believe the ban was put in place by for­mer Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, who is now in prison for cor­rup­tion. I think they [banned me] as ret­ri­bu­tion for the 2015 wom­en’s peace walk I helped orga­nize and lead. At that time, the Park administration’s pol­i­cy towards the north was one of more iso­la­tion and sanc­tions, and our mes­sage as women peace­mak­ers chal­lenged that by call­ing for a peace treaty to end the Kore­an War and [allow for] fam­i­ly reunions. We want­ed to draw atten­tion to the fact that decades of iso­la­tion and mil­i­tarism haven’t solved the war. That went against the Park and Oba­ma poli­cies of strate­gic patience.

Frankly, I have been crit­i­cal of the last two con­ser­v­a­tive [South Kore­an] admin­is­tra­tions. I was will­ing to speak out about the expan­sion of mil­i­tarism, includ­ing the cre­ation of a U.S. naval base to project pow­er against Chi­na. I chal­lenged poli­cies. I’ve had trac­tion. I’ve con­tributed to a more crit­i­cal per­spec­tive about the alliance between South Korea and the Unit­ed States. I think they con­sid­ered me a pest.

I could­n’t believe that I was being pun­ished this way. I told the Asiana Air­lines super­vi­sor that this must have been a mis­take, and if it was­n’t, it must have been a car­ry­over from the Park régime. I appealed to her con­science and asked, Real­ly, South Korea is going to ban me because I orga­nized this wom­en’s March across the [demil­i­ta­rized zone, or DMZ] call­ing for peace, reunit­ing sep­a­rat­ed fam­i­lies and demand­ing wom­en’s inclu­sion in peace building?”

She walked away and said I would need to apply for a visa and pur­chase anoth­er tick­et to get to Shang­hai. I walked to the Unit­ed Air­lines counter, and a kind agent who was from Ton­ga con­soled me. I showed her a pam­phlet of our peace walk, includ­ing pho­tos of our quilt stitch­ing cer­e­mo­ny with North Kore­an women, and she encour­aged me to chin up and keep mov­ing for­ward, that our world need­ed pos­i­tive actions like these.

Sarah: How did you find out the ban had been lifted?

Chris­tine: It came out in Yon­hap News and was con­firmed by the reporter Boy­oung Lim of New­stapa after call­ing the min­istry of Jus­tice. A pub­lic out­cry led to sev­er­al oth­er agen­cies request­ing that the ban be lifted.

I’m elat­ed. The sun keeps shin­ing with [Pres­i­dent] Moon in pow­er. It’s an amaz­ing tes­ta­ment that it is a new day on the Kore­an penin­su­la, and that the pow­er of social move­ments can put enough pres­sure to yield pos­i­tive change.

Sarah: Do you see any open­ings for peace in this cur­rent polit­i­cal moment?

The cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion has a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy. Moon is call­ing for peace and dia­logue. Our plans are to sup­port his calls for a peace treaty and to press for wom­en’s groups’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in the peace-build­ing process. We now have sev­er­al decades of evi­dence show­ing that when wom­en’s groups are involved, not only does it fre­quent­ly lead to peace agree­ments, it leads to more durable and sus­tain­able ones.

We have to get this done while Moon is in pow­er, oth­er­wise the Kore­an War will just lan­guish on. Korea needs to get its act togeth­er, not just for mil­lions of elders who will die not see­ing their loved ones, but to avert a nuclear war that could engulf the entire region. Korea can become a neu­tral coun­try and halt the region­al arms race. I will do my part as an Amer­i­can to con­tin­ue to mobi­lize fel­low cit­i­zens to pres­sure our gov­ern­ment to reach a peace deal with North Korea.

We are in a his­toric align­ment now, espe­cial­ly with women being in key posi­tions in South Korea, North Korea and Chi­na. With women in top for­eign Min­istry posts, and with pres­sure from wom­en’s peace groups, I believe women — from the high­est lev­els of pow­er to the grass­roots — can push togeth­er for a peace agreement.

Now, the miss­ing puz­zle piece is the Unit­ed States. As every­one has seen, there are only white men sur­round­ing Trump in his cab­i­net meet­ings. But the ground­work can be laid until enough pres­sure is mount­ed in the Unit­ed States.

Sarah: What can peo­ple in the Unit­ed States do to sup­port peace and de-escalation?

Chris­tine: Amer­i­cans can pres­sure our gov­ern­ment to sign a peace agree­ment with North Korea that will nor­mal­ize rela­tions, lift sanc­tions and begin a path towards end­ing mil­i­tary exer­cis­es and nuclear weapons on the Kore­an peninsula.

We were vil­i­fied by some right-wing media for being pro-north’ because we were link­ing the North Kore­an human rights issue with the con­tin­u­ing state of war. We’ve nev­er denied that human rights abus­es take place in North Korea. The unre­solved war has led to a high­ly con­trolled soci­ety. Peace is not against human rights; it is part and par­cel of it. Peace is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for the full real­iza­tion of human rights. Whether we like it or not, the North Kore­an régime will con­tin­ue to use the threat of a U.S. pre-emp­tive strike to jus­ti­fy repres­sion in the name of pre­serv­ing their sovereignty.

The win­ner-take-all” mod­el that is crit­i­cal of engage­ment and diplo­ma­cy only per­pet­u­ates the war foot­ing, leav­ing no room for nuance, com­plex­i­ty or com­pro­mise. States of hos­til­i­ty and inter­na­tion­al con­flict are the basis on which states have long vio­lat­ed the rights of their cit­i­zens. Sad­ly, the South Kore­an gov­ern­ment, espe­cial­ly under Park, is guilty of the same. 

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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