PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Iconic women's rights activist Gloria Steinem may be in North Korea, but she is as outspoken as ever.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 81-year-old feminism pioneer said she decided to join a group of women in a rare and in some quarters highly controversial walk across the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea because she thinks efforts to force change by isolating the North have failed. But, she said, she has no intention of letting the North's leadership off the hook for its own human rights record.
Steinem and a group of 29 other women from 15 countries are set to walk across the DMZ on Sunday after obtaining a rare green light from both governments. The permission didn't come easily — they had to alter their plans to go through the symbolic truce village of Panmunjom, where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, because officials in Seoul and the United Nations Command responsible for security in the area said they could not guarantee the group's safety.
Instead, the women will take a route that links the two Koreas to the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint North-South business venture near the border.
"We paid for tickets, we came here we had no idea whether we could actually cross the DMZ or not," Steinem told the AP in Pyongyang before the group set off for Kaesong. "Here we are doing this with the consent of two opposed governments. I think that is quite remarkable in itself. North and South Korean women can't walk across the DMZ legally. We from other countries can. So I feel we are walking on their behalf."
Steinem, a key figure in the women's rights movement in the United States for decades, decided to join the walk after being approached by organizer Christine Ahn, a Korean-American peace activist. She said she is old enough to remember the 1950-53 Korean War, and she believes that women can play an important role in pushing governments to take more effective action to bring peace.
She said she also feels strongly that efforts by Washington and its allies to isolate Pyongyang have failed.
"The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven't worked very well in my experience," she said. "Isolating North Korea clearly hasn't worked. I think we have to go ahead with the idea of first do no harm. We haven't done any harm, and it might turn out to be a good thing."
Steinem quickly added, however, that coming to North Korea does not mean she is endorsing Pyongyang's policies or ignoring its domestic human rights record.
"I don't think that anybody is saying that because Gloria Steinem is coming, North Korea is fine," she said. "Everybody knows what the problems are. In some situations, I suppose that might be a danger. But I don't see it here and I really don't think we would have gotten all the permissions that we needed if other people saw that danger."
The plan to walk across the DMZ has been looked on very differently in the North and South.
On Thursday, North Korea's state media reported on a peace symposium held by the women in Pyongyang with representatives of North Korean women's groups, saying they branded the U.S. "a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human rights abuses." South Korea's Yonhap news agency, meanwhile, picking up on the North Korean reports, quoted academics in the South saying the group's activities would not help efforts to pressure the North to give up its nuclear weapons program or improve its human rights record.
"Those words were never uttered," Ahn, the walk organizer, told AP. "We spoke about the impact of militarism around the world, including in Liberia, Colombia, Japan, Northern Ireland as well as the United States. We are operating in an environment where multiple sides will take our words out of context to advance their political agendas."
Steinem dismissed suggestions the group, which also includes two Nobel Peace Prize winners, was deliberately massaging its message to please their North Korean hosts.
"I haven't had to censor myself at all. We've made it a point not to meet with high officials or to play basketball with high officials," she said, referring to former NBA star Dennis Rodman's trip to Pyongyang, when he played basketball and sang happy birthday to leader Kim Jong Un. "Obviously, there's certain things I won't do."
She said she refused to bow or stand before statues of the leaders and be photographed, which is often expected of foreign visitors.
"At the airport, it's an immediate surprise that you are not allowed to bring books in, or DVDs, and that you have to turn in your cellphone and get a different chip in your cellphone," she said. "This is not good ... The balance between the individual and the community is supposed to be even. And it is out of balance."
But, while she sees change in North Korea as a long process, she said she believes the walk across the DMZ is a significant step forward.
"We are being met by a couple of thousand women on the other side and a Catholic priest representing the Vatican. That's the first time I've ever been received by the Vatican," she quipped. "It's amazing. It's really, really amazing."