Sitting on the couch in her Southold home this week, Aiyoung Choi wiped tears from her eyes as she told the story of how five siblings, now in their eighties, reunited after spending more than 60 years apart.
The brothers and sisters hadn’t seen each other since Korea was divided along the 38th parallel after World War II, when the former Soviet Union claimed the north and the United States the south.
The Korean War — also known as the Forgotten War — broke out soon after, lasting from June 1950 to July 1953. Four million people, mostly innocent civilians, died during this time, said Ms. Choi, 75.
“It’s unimaginable,” she said. “It was crazy, chaotic and many people starved, died and had no medical help. Things were bombed to smithereens, water systems were broken; there was no drinking water. There was just all kinds of carnage and not enough help. The winters were brutal. It was just terrible. Terrible.”
An armistice agreement was signed following the war, but no formal peace treaty was ever signed. Now, 62 years after its conclusion, the two countries are technically still in a state of war.
“Where is this going to go unless the voices of peace speak out?” Ms. Choi said.
That’s one of the reasons she and 29 other women from 15 countries banded together May 24 to walk part of the demilitarized zone, a 250-kilometer stretch of land designed to separate North and South Korea.
The group, known as Women Cross DMZ, included notable activists such as feminist and writer Gloria Steinem and Nobel Peace laureates Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland.
Ms. Choi said she was chosen for the trip, which took two years to organize, on account of her long history of human rights work. She advocates for gender equality, peaceful conflict resolution, the LGBT community and is chair emerita of the Korean American Family Service Center in Queens. She’s also a founding member of the Asian Women Giving Circle, among other organizations.
The women spent a total of 10 days in both North and South Korea in the hope of accomplishing three goals, Ms. Choi said.
They sought to focus international attention on the need for a peace treaty between the two countries, to increase family unifications and person-to-person contact between North and South Koreans and to highlight the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, which “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts [and] peace negotiations.”
Family reunification, including the siblings whose story brought Ms. Choi to tears, remains the most personal of the group’s goals. Thousands of families were separated as the DMZ was flooded with land mines, leaving many of them torn apart for generations.
“We are hopeful that with family unifications there will be more crossings and there will be a broadening of the path between the two sides,” she said.
The walk was scheduled for May 24 to commemorate International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.
Approximately 5,000 women greeted the group members as they began their walk in North Korea. In South Korea, the reception was different, although equally warm. There, Ms. Choi said, Women Cross DMZ was met by thousands of supporters, this time including men, women and children.
“It was an amazing sight,” she recalled. “As we were walking, one woman was literally crying. Tears were just flowing down her face.”
Rather than walk the length of the demilitarized zone, the group attempted to cross its 2 1/2-mile width. But it wasn’t permitted to cross in certain areas. Instead, participants rode a bus across the first mile and a half, crossing the final mile through the city of Kaesong while holding hands.
“The city we crossed through is an industrial city and there’s a certain amount of north and south contact already happening on a permitted basis,” Ms. Choi said.
Born in Korea in 1940 — five years before the country’s division — Ms. Choi lived there until she was three. After that, she lived in Shanghai, Taiwan and Tokyo before moving to the United States at age 20 to attend Knox College in Illinois.
Until two years ago, Ms. Choi believed she’d been born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. But not long before she was invited to go on the walk, she learned that she’d actually been born in North Korea — making the trip even more special since it was her first time back.
The 30 women in Ms. Choi’s group originally wanted to be the first to cross through the village of Panmunjom, just north of the between North and South Korea, where the armistice agreement was signed, but that was forbidden. Instead, they visited the site in Panmunjom where the armistice document is kept, a day that was incredibly symbolic for Ms. Choi.
She said the armistice was well protected by security and the building felt solemn — until one woman pulled out the unity quilt. The quilt was created in America as part of a One Heart Project, which began with a “desire to connect people through the art of quilt making,” according to its website. It was brought to North and South Korea to be used as a symbol of peace during the discussions and symposiums held by Women Cross DMZ.
“Women put the first few pieces together and these women included some old ladies who were Holocaust survivors,” Ms. Choi said. “There’s a lot of pain, survival and love of peace that went into this quilt.”
One woman began to sing after the quilt was unveiled, she said. Eventually, the entire group was singing it.
“And then, as we began to sing, everyone sang and [held the quilt] and the whole place was ringing with music for maybe the first time ever,” Ms. Choi said, her face lighting up at the memory. “The song was in Korean and it was about peace.”
In Ms. Choi’s eyes, the trip was a success. The North and South Korean governments have begun to communicate, she said, and agree on numerous aspects that made the trip possible.
But Women Cross DMZ’s work doesn’t stop there. Together, Ms. Choi said, group members have created a five-year plan that, if executed correctly, will grant peace in Korea by 2020. The plan includes deepening the dialogue with Korean women, advocating for the de-mining of the DMZ and the vision of a unified Korea and speaking across the United States to educate people about the group’s mission.
“I’m very excited for her and her group and that they’ve been so successful,” said Ms. Choi’s husband, Gene Schwanke. “I have to say it has changed her life. I’m very proud of her.”