A pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose. A pilgrimage can be to a place -- that's the best known kind -- but it can also be for a thing. Mine is for peace . . . -- Peace Pilgrim
This summer marks the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which stopped the combat but did not end the Korean War. We live in a condition of perpetual war here in South Korea as violence surges under the Armistice Agreement. To confront this geopolitical mess, there have been number of peace pilgrimages on the Korean peninsula organized to preempt the threat of war, which has become a routine aspect of everyday life, and to push for the signing of a peace treaty that would finally end the Korean War.
At the beginning of the summer, a Peace Tour for scholars, artists and activists was organized by the Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea (ASCK), an organization that has been working to introduce information about the Korean War on university campuses all over the world. ASCK was first organized in 2002, the year George W. Bush delivered his toxic "Axis of Evil" speech, a conjuncture in which it appeared that violent rhetoric was leading up to war.
This Peace Tour, organized by ASCK in alliance with a number of other organizations, took participants to historically deep, culturally important and politically sensitive locations all over South Korea, such as No Gun Ri (Nogeun-ri), the site of a massacre of refugees by U.S. troops early in the Korean War, and Gwangju, a vital center of the Korean democracy movement in the 1980s.
The tour ended in the village of Gangjeong on Jeju Island, a ruggedly beautiful volcanic island that is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is a favorite destination for Korean honeymooners. Like many Pacific Islands, Jeju has been and continues to be disastrously impacted by the Cold War, which is far from over in this part of the world. In 1948, a violent crackdown on supposed communists and communist-sympathizers by the South Korean army, with the compliance of the U.S., resulted in the deaths of roughly 30,000 Jeju civilians. This ugly chapter of the Cold War is documented in Jiseul (2012), a new film by Jeju director O Muel, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Cold War past and present merge as the sublime southern coastline of Jeju is being destroyed to make way for a high-tech naval base. Local villagers, international anti-base activists and other concerned humans, with the support of high-profile figures like Gloria Steinem and Oliver Stone, are passionately struggling to stop construction of the base. Yet as in the past, these protests are being met with equally passionate state violence.
At the end of the Peace Tour, the participants created a Peace Statement Declaration, which reads in part:
"The war on the Korean peninsula continues to reproduce and augment conflicts in the Asia Pacific, with Korea as the clash point between continental and oceanic powers. The wounds from the war have not healed, and this unending war continues to create yet more suffering.
On this Peace Tour we have come to understand how the continuation of war perpetuates the pain and enmity that deeply affect all in Korea and the Asia Pacific. The long armistice without a peace treaty has exacted a heavy toll on life and resources and has compromised human security. It is not only Koreans but also everyone residing in the Asia Pacific who has suffered from war preparations, intermittent clashes, and belligerent politics.
Now we must replace politico-military hostilities and the arms race with enduring peace. The Korean peninsula should no longer be a point of conflict and dispute, but a place for cooperation in which all residents in Korea and the Asia Pacific work together to realize a vision of peaceful coexistence. Let us make the year 2013, the 60th year of the Armistice, a year of progress by formally ending the Korean War with the signing of a peace treaty."
Similar issues are being addressed by a group of Korean and international artists who have come together to form The Real DMZ Project, which gives exhibition tours of areas near the DMZ, "surveying the influence that the sixty year old DMZ borderline has on individuals and on our society." Through tours, lectures, exhibitions and art installations, The Real DMZ Project aims to change habitual ways of thinking about the DMZ, which has become an accepted and normal part of everyday life on the peninsula. In order to shake up the "division mentality," these artists work to explore the meanings of and possibilities for "true demilitarization" in one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet.
Finally, a different kind of pilgrimage will begin this month, as a motorbike team from New Zealand plans to ride for peace, beginning in North Korea and continuing all the way through South Korea. Along the way, the team will be exhibiting photographs of the Baekdu Daegan mountain range, known as the "spine of Korea," which were taken by Roger Shepherd over the past several years and will be available in book form in September. The team plans to collect rocks from Mt. Baekdu in the far north, and place them at Mt. Halla in the far south on Jeju Island. These are the Grandfather and Grandmother mountains of the Korean peninsula, and through such symbolic acts, these motorcycle pilgrims hope to represent the Baekdu Daegan as a unifying force.
On Jan. 1, 1953, a woman decked out in navy blue slacks, navy blue blouse and a navy blue tunic left the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and began wandering around North America on foot. She had the words "Peace Pilgrim" printed on the front of her tunic, and "Walking 10,000 miles for peace" on the back. Ten years later, she had traveled 25,000 miles, at which point she decided to stop counting, but did not stop walking, until her death in 1981.
Describing the motivation for her pilgrimage, Peace Pilgrim recalls a time not unlike our own:
"I realized in 1952 that it was the proper time for a pilgrim to step forth. The war in Korea was raging and the McCarthy era was at its height. It was a time when congressional committees considered people guilty until they could prove their innocence. There was great fear at that time and it was safest to be apathetic. Yes it was most certainly a time for a pilgrim to step forward, because a pilgrim's job is to rouse people from apathy and make them think."
For 28 years, Peace Pilgrim wandered across all fifty states, ten Canadian provinces and parts of Mexico, carrying only a pen, toothbrush, comb and some letters. She traveled without money, slept outdoors and relied on the charity of others for food. When she was not on the road, Peace Pilgrim gave lectures and gathered signatures for several peace petitions, one of which was a plea for immediate peace in Korea.
To meaningfully commemorate the civilian and military lives lost during the Korean War and under the Armistice, Americans should pick this petition back up and push for the signing of a peace treaty with North Korea that would end the Korean War. To learn more about the Petition for Peace, or the many organizations from all over the world that support the signing of a peace treaty to end the Korean War, go to: www.endthekoreanwar.org.