Changing Narratives, Building Peace

Story of Change

We believe in the power of networks of women united for peace. In 2019, WILPF joined together with three other leading women’s groups to launch the Korea Peace Now! campaign – the first initiative of its kind with a goal to advocate for women’s leadership in the Korea peace process and build big ideas of change from the ground up.

It’s time to formally end the Korean War with a peace agreement.

YouKyoung Ko, WILPF’s consultant for the Korea Peace Now! campaign

In March 2019, WILPF – together with Women Cross DMZ, the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Korean Women’s Movement for Peace – kickstarted a new campaign called Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War (KPN) to organise, advocate and educate toward a peace agreement for Korea, with a fierce network of feminist peacebuilders leading the way.

The campaign marks a major step toward the inclusion of women in peacebuilding processes in Korea – processes from which women have been virtually excluded – and represents significant action toward the resolution of a war that’s brought decades of hardship to Koreans but has been all but forgotten by the international community that instigated it.

Caught in the middle of geopolitics

The end of World War II brought change for Korea, but it did not bring peace. While the defeat of Japan liberated Korea from 35 years of colonial rule, the nation also entered into a new war – one that continues to this day.

In 1948, three years after Japan fell and lost its grip on Korea, the United States and the Soviet Union – the allied forces that defeated the island nation and its stronghold on its neighbouring country – agreed to divide Korea into two separate states after being unable to establish a single government. This marked the creation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. It also instigated the three-year-long Korean War, which saw four million deaths, mass displacement and profound destruction.

When the fighting was over, eight million families became separated by the border. With Cold War hostilities preventing contact between the two states to this day, very few of these families have ever received closure.

The Korean War never officially ended. Although DPRK, China and the United States have an armistice agreement that prevents active fighting, the war was never resolved and hostilities remain high. The absence of a peace agreement has led to the ongoing militarisation of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and beyond. It has also given space for the DPRK’s ongoing acquisition of nuclear weapons, which the nation claims is a response to the lack of a peace agreement and ongoing hostility from the U.S.

Text that says: "In 2018, some progress was made when ROK and DPRK signed the Panmunjom Declaration, agreeing to cooperate on working toward an official ending to the Korean War. But there's still a long way to go."

Meanwhile, the international community responsible for inciting years of strife in Korea has largely left the country and its people behind to suffer the consequences of being caught in the middle of world politics. As Kozue Akibayashi, WILPF’s Asia Pacific Regional Representative, has said: “One of the major obstacles to bringing an end to this conflict is that the international community has forgotten it.”

Text that says: "It is often overlooked that the involvement of the UN and twenty countries made the Korean war international in nature and continues to do so today. Bringing and end to the conflict is a shared responsibility of the international community. For more historical context, read Suzy Kim's feminist history of women Cross DMZ."

Reaction to inaction: Picking up the peace in the Koreas

Spurred on by lack of progressive action by the international community, in 2019 four women’s organisations decided to launch the Korea Peace Now! campaign to advance the inclusion of women in peace talks, drive steps toward change and radically re-envision world politics through cooperation, understanding and accountability.

Networking to share the stories of Koreans affected by the war has been a crucial part of the KPN campaign’s mission to create change in the grand narratives of complex geopolitics. For example, at the KPN campaign launch in March 2019, Mimi Han, the founder of the Korean Women’s Movement for Peace, spoke on the trauma of Korea’s separation.

Speaking to the plight of Korean civilians – the human impact of separation and the trauma of war – has been at the heart of changing prevailing attitudes and encouraging international cooperation, which has long been preoccupied with policies of isolation rather than reintegration. Along the way, the KPN team has met many groups and individuals eager to listen to these stories and inspired to change the course of history.

YouKyoung Ko, WILPF’s KPN consultant, drives these messages home by bringing her expertise to the lobbying, analysis and educating work done in conversations in and around the UN.

KPN has also contributed to building a women’s network in the Northeast Asia region for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Delegations from KPN have travelled, among other places, to ROK, Mongolia and Japan to have honest discussions about ways to work together.

In addition to these efforts, the campaign is actively advocating for the full denuclearisation of the region – a process that’s only possible through the development of a peace agreement and mutual confidence-building.

Madeleine Rees, Christine Ahn, Anthony Keedi, Joy Onyesoh sharing stories of Korea Peace Now Campaign at the Geneva Peace Week.
Text that says: "In November 2019, Christine Ahn, Executive Director of Women Cross DMZ, came to Geneva, Switzerland, to share stories of the Korea Peace Now campaign at a public event during Geneva Peace Week and to take part in the launch of an independent report on the harms of sanctions on DPRK."

Understanding the human impact of so-called non-violent sanctions

In 2019, the KPN campaign commissioned a report from an independent panel of global experts to unravel the harms done by international sanctions on DPRK, which are considered a “non-violent” alternative to war.

Text that says: "Can you believe this is the first ever comprehensive assessment of the impact of sanctions on North Korea?"

In stark contrast to this belief, the report found that in 2018 alone, nearly 4,000 Koreans are estimated to have died due to sanction-related delays and funding shortfalls. In many cases, the delivery of life-saving aid is being prevented and the most vulnerable populations are the most impacted.

The report also highlighted that though women are far less likely to have influence over decision-making in DPRK, they are disproportionately burdened by the sanctions. The economic pressure exacerbates rates of gender-based violence, increases caregiving responsibilities and affects economic livelihoods by destabilising industries with high ratios of female workers.

Text that says: "Discussions about peace are incomplete without discussions about political economies. In 2019, WILPF also facilitated feminist political economy discussions in Cameroon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Zimbabwe and elsewhere."

The report was launched in New York at the 19th anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in October 2019, and later in Geneva during Geneva Peace Week in November 2019. In Geneva, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in DPRK made specific mention of the report when he called on governments to pay attention to its messages.

Its messages are already being shared and repeated. In December, members of the UN Security Council addressed sanctions and humanitarian situations at the briefing on non-proliferation, which was focused on DPRK. And when Reuters reported on the current political situation between DPRK and the United States, it mentioned the report findings and the campaign’s message on sanctions.

KPN is building bridges to peace

KPN campaign members have been leading tireless efforts to shift global narratives and advance a feminist understanding of security centred on basic human needs.

Instead of thinking about global politics as an individualistic quest for power, the group is building new bridges of understanding with many who share WILPF’s conviction for feminist peace – creating big ideas of change from the ground up.

For Korea, that change starts now.