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Women peace activists cross North-South Korea border

Group of 30 international women cross demilitarized zone by bus after denied by authorities to walk across border

Female activists including Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace laureates were denied an attempt to walk across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea on Sunday, but were allowed to cross by bus and complete what one of them called a landmark event aimed at ending hostilities between the two sides.

The group of 30 women from 15 countries made a final appeal to authorities on both sides to allow them to walk across the demarcation line, but were turned down. The North allowed a South Korean bus to cross the demarcation line to pick them up on the North side of the DMZ and transport them over the border to South Korea.

United Nations Command officials met the group inside the DMZ after they crossed the demarcation line, and allowed them to march again after the final checkpoint on the southern side.

"We were able to be citizen diplomats," said Steinem, the 81-year-old feminism pioneer and author.

"We are feeling very, very positive. We have received an enormous amount of support," she said after passing through South Korean immigration.

The group included Nobel Peace laureates Mairead Maguire, from Northern Ireland, and Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia.

The women walked, carried banners and sang on the North Korean side of the first checkpoint leading into the DMZ. They were then met by a large contingent of media on the South side.

The Koreas have remained divided since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. The DMZ that divides them is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Authorities on both sides said they could not guarantee the safety of the women had they walked across.

Organizer Christine Ahn, a Korean-American peace activist, said the group initially wanted to walk through the symbolic truce village of Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed.

Still, she said the crossing itself was a success and a "historic event" despite "governments setting boundaries."

Some members of the group expressed disappointment that the walk inside the DMZ was denied. But Ahn said she was satisfied that they were able to meet with North Korean women during their several-day stay in Pyongyang, the North's capital, and to cross through the DMZ, which is rarely allowed in any form to civilians.

The women will also meet with South Korean counterparts.

Ahn said the group went to the two Koreas to call for an end to hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, push for a reunification of families divided by the war and promote dialogue between the two enemies.

Robert Kelly, a professor of political science and diplomacy at South Korea's Pusan National University, told Al Jazeera that "by crossing between the two states and making it look like both the North and the South are equally to blame, the march is letting Pyongyang off the hook.”

"They are not morally the same, North Korea has a terrible record of human rights abuses. It allowed up to two million of its people to starve to death in the late '90s. To suggest the two are analogous, as the march is suggesting, is an error," Kelly said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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