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Seeking Peace and Reconciliation

Lynch School faculty member Brinton Lykes talks about her experiences as part of women's delegation that visited North and South Korea

06/05/15
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CAPTION: Prof. Brinton Lykes (LSOE), at right, with Gloria Steinem and other delegates who went on the Women’s Walk for Peace in Korea last month. (Photo by Jodie Evans)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: June 5, 2015

The two weeks Lynch School of Education Professor Brinton Lykes spent in Korea – both North and South – as part of an international women’s delegation were a whirlwind of public events and private moments, contrasting sights and perspectives, and a montage of emotions and impressions through which she continues to sift.

But one thing Lykes knows for certain: It was an enlightening, transformative experience, one that she and her fellow delegates hope can contribute to improved relations between North and South Korea, and to a reconsideration of the US role in that troubled region.

“We accomplished what we set out to do,” she says, “which was to call attention to the still unresolved conflict in Korea – many people don’t realize that while a ceasefire halted the fighting in 1953, no treaty has ever been signed – and the many lives this has affected: people in the North and South unable to see family members on the other side; North Koreans who struggle to live because of crippling economic sanctions; a region that is constantly militarized at the expense of social, educational, medical and other needs.

“At the same time, we wanted to point up the legacy of the US involvement with Korea, and the need for the US to help forge a new era of peace and reconciliation.”

Lykes went to Korea with 29 other women human rights activists, including author and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Gloria Steinem; Nobel Prize laureates Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee; Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink and Global Exchange; and Christine Ahn, co-organizer of several initiatives aimed at resolving the Korean conflict.

The group traveled to Korea in mid-May to meet with women activists on both sides of the divided nation, and take part in a series of events aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation, highlighted by a planned walk across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) from North to South on May 24 – the 70th anniversary of the separation of Korea into two states.

“The focus on women reflected the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 that women be involved in all phases of every peace process,” Lykes says. “We felt it important to put the spotlight on the experiences of women – their stories tend to be forgotten in the history of conflicts.”

High-profile peacemaking efforts such as the Women’s Walk for Peace in Korea invariably provoke skepticism and doubt in the media and elsewhere. Some commentators, particularly in South Korea, decried what they saw as manipulation and propaganda, especially on the part of North Korea, and suggested – or outright stated – that Lykes and her fellow delegates were dupes, or worse, for taking part.

Lykes acknowledges that the delegation had to operate within constraints imposed by both North and South, and was fully aware that some events and activities were organized so as to advance political viewpoints of the host government. In fact, owing to sensitivities and difficulties in communication between North and South, the DMZ crossing did not go quite as planned – the delegation walked part of the way, but then were bussed the remainder of the two-mile distance.

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Lykes with her North Korean interpreter Jang Ye Song, with whom she had many revealing discussions: "[Jang] genuinely wanted to hear what the US was like, and what we thought about North Korea," says Lykes. (Photo by Jane Jin Kaisen)

But Lykes said she and her fellow delegates firmly believe these limitations did not detract from the overall significance of the visit, or the value of what they observed and learned.

“Anytime you immerse yourself in another country,” she says, “you have the opportunity not only to learn about that society but about your own as well. You see yourself and your country in a new light, because you see how people see you. Most everything we, as Americans, have heard or read about North Korea comes in the context of international politics, so it was refreshing to see things for ourselves.

“The testimonies we heard from survivors were remarkable,” adds Lykes, who has researched the impact of armed conflict on women and children. “One North Korean woman talked about the bombing of her village during the war, when she was a child. Where others had spoken about seeking reconciliation, she spoke about seeking revenge. What struck me was how her story crystallized the Korean experience for many: Because of the continual tension and militarization, she still experiences the US as a threat, and there has been no opportunity for her to resolve the traumatic war experience, to re-story her life.

“Even though I’ve heard many stories of war horrors and am familiar with research on torture and trauma, it was very challenging to hear her, and it underlined the importance of ending this war – so that she and many others can begin to find closure.”

An unexpected, but welcome, source of revelations about Korean society for Lykes came through her conversations with her 24-year-old North Korean interpreter Jang Ye Song. “Jang had volunteered for the job, she explained, because in addition to beefing up her English she wanted to understand American feminism. She genuinely wanted to hear what the US was like, and what we thought about North Korea.

“One thing that was particularly interesting was her explanation of Korean philosophy as it relates to self-reliance, how in North Korea there is a collective sense of being ‘one’ so as to protect itself from the world. At the same time, Jang talked about her own goals and how she wanted to make a contribution to the world.

“My sense was that these types of exchanges may not have been possible 10 years ago, so perhaps it’s an indication that some openings are occurring.”

Lykes’ place in the delegation came about through Boston College colleague Professor Emeritus Ramsay Liem, who has been active himself in Korean peace and reconciliation efforts: He and his sister-in-law Deann Borshay Liem – another member of the delegation – produced and directed “Memory of Forgotten War,” a documentary depicting the human cost of the Korean War through accounts by four Korean-Americans, and are putting together a film, “Crossings,” about the Women’s Walk for Peace in Korea.

For information about the Women’s Walk for Peace in Korea, see www.womencrossdmz.org; to learn about the “Crossings” documentary, see facebook.com/crossingsdmzfilm.