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From grassroots to peace talks: Women in the inter-Korean peace process

Women Cross DMZ at a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Seoul, 25 May 2018. Source: Jeehyun Kwon/Nobel Women's Initiative.
Women Cross DMZ at a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Seoul, 25 May 2018. Source: Jeehyun Kwon/Nobel Women's Initiative.

Despite some hurdles, the last two years have seen hope return to the inter-Korean peace process. With the historic summit on 27 April 2018 following the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK, North Korea) participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, inter-Korean relations became significantly warmer and perhaps closer than ever. However, what was visible between the hopeful scenes during these historical talks was the dominant presence of men. As feminist scholars have long asked, where are the women? With this question, this topical backgrounder revisits the inter-Korean peace process with a particular focus on women’s participation, from grassroots movements to peace talks. It will do so by examining how Korean women have been involved and the characteristics of their participation including challenges and opportunities, especially in relation to the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2020.

Due to its protracted nature, there is no singular definition of the Korean peace process. Five formal peace talks (inter-Korean summits) took place from June 2000 until August 2018. While this commentary largely focuses on the peace talks and positive movement between South Korea and North Korea in 2018, it also includes other diplomatic activities around the first-ever inter-Korean peace talks in 2000. 

How have Korean women been included in the inter-Korean peace process?

The seven inclusion modalities that Thania Paffenholz developed from case studies of previous peace processes for broadening women’s participation in those processes provide a useful framework for examining how women have been involved in peace processes. According to the modalities, inclusion of women can take place by: (a) direct representation at the negotiation table; (b) observer status; (c) consultations; (d) inclusive commissions; (e) high-level problem-solving workshops; (f) public decision making; and (g) mass action (see table 1). This approach is based on the idea that the negotiation table should be seen neither as the only modality nor as a single entry point for women’s participation. Assessing the Korean peace process with this framework, three of the modalities appear to be evident: direct representation; inclusive commissions; and mass action.

Table 1. Seven modalities of inclusion in peace processes
Table 1. Seven modalities of inclusion in peace processes


Direct representation

In the five inter-Korean summits held so far, women have had limited participation in the formal peace talks. Of the three peace talks in 2018, the ones held in April 2018 were historic as they took place after more than a decade. In those talks in 2018, there were only two women included in the high-level delegation: Kang Kyung-wha, the South Korean Foreign Minister also the country’s first female foreign minister; and Kim Yo Jong, a North Korean high-level state security official and the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. This was out of a total of seven delegates from the South Korean delegation and nine delegates from the North Korean delegation. Although there were some women in the general delegation group from South Korea, especially from the social and cultural sectors, Kang Kyung-wha and Kim Yo Jong, stand out given their roles and involvement in the meetings that were mostly comprised of high-level security, military and political officials. 

Inclusive commissions

As part of the agreement in the South–North Joint Declaration that resulted from the first inter-Korean peace talks in 2000, both parties agreed to establish joint committees to strengthen exchanges and cooperation in economic, cultural and other fields. In this regard, three committees were established in 2005—North Korea, South Korea and overseas—for the implementation of the South–North Joint Declaration, led by civil society. The Committee on Women, as part of the overseas committee, played a role as an inclusive commission by holding regular meetings between women representatives. The Committee on Women has since been dissolved but during the subsequent summits after 2018, a meeting of five women from North Korea and eight from South Korea took place as a continuation of the committee. In addition, in South Korea, women have been involved in official committees on inter-Korean relations such as advisory groups formed by the government in preparation for 2018 peace talks. Women were involved albeit in an unrepresentative way—3 out of 21 senior advisory group members (14 per cent) and 4 out of 25 (16 per cent) expert group members were women.

In addition to the committees and the advisory groups, Korean women’s groups have been actively engaging to raise their voices in more informal spaces. An example is the Northeast Asian Women’s Peace conference that was held in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 in order to increase awareness and significance of peacebuilding in the Korean peninsula—and women’s roles in it—in international fora. In particular grassroots women’s organizations in South Korea—such as Women Making Peace or others under an umbrella organization, called the Korean Women’s Association United—have been regularly mobilizing women, making efforts to build solidarity at the national and international levels and advocate bringing more gender perspectives into peace-making processes. Their engagement has been ongoing even when high-level discussions have reached an impasse, with a focus on building peace on the Korean peninsula by resisting the militarized structure of the Korean conflict. Currently their advocacy work has expanded to calling for the suspension of the sanctions against North Korea so the country can better respond to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Mass action

In October 2002, almost 700 women from North Korea and South Korea gathered in Mount Kumgang, a North Korean tourist attraction, for the North and South Korean Women’s Reunification Rally for Peace and the Implementation of the June 15 Declaration. The event is still recorded as the largest inter-Korean women’s meeting in its history. Mass action ceased, but started again in 2015 with the Women Cross DMZ (demilitarized zone), a transnational peace movement to raise awareness of the 1950–53 Korean War as well as to build the political will by engaging with officials. In 2019, it led to the initiation of a global campaign called Korea Peace Now with national and international civil society organizations (CSOs). While earlier mass action had been primarily focused on and led by Korean women, it has now been strengthened with solidarity from international women’s groups and a clear objective to increase women’s voices and inclusion in the Korean peace process, to be more in line with the global agenda such as UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

Factors constraining Korean women’s participation and influence

As such, Korean women’s participation occurred through different modalities alongside the formal peace talks. However, women’s participation and influence in the peace talks have been constrained. Firstly, participation of women in formal talks has been very low and there is limited information about whether their presence would bring influence or lead the way to an increased gender perspective at the table. Despite this limitation, the Korean peace process also contains an example of the presence of female high-level officials in diplomacy, security and peace matters—such as Kang Kyung-wha and Kim Yo Jong—resulting in their participation in formal peace dialogues. This provides an indication of the significance of more female officials already at the decision-making levels. 

In addition, nuclear non-proliferation has been at the centre of the peace talks and the whole peace process has been militarized and securitized. As a result, there is little space in which civil society can intervene and be involved. This would explain why some types of modalities such as observers or consultations (see table 1) are missing from the Korean peace process. It is also difficult to bring more civil society actors in since women’s movements or representation of civil society is hardly guaranteed in North Korea. The Socialist Women’s Union of Korea is the oldest—and probably the only—mass organization for women in North Korea. This limited civic space for North Korean women is an obstacle to including women, especially from civil society, in the peace talks. This would also be the reason that public decision-making model (see table 1) is not suitable for this context. 

Lastly, inter-Korean relations have fluctuated and have been largely dependent on the leadership and global political climate. This changeable or sometimes broken-down peace process subsequently makes it hard to maintain the momentum and to hold the mechanisms such as inclusive commissions on a regular basis. 

Women-to-women exchanges as opportunities

Research has found that the presence of strong women’s groups already active in a country prior to negotiations is the enabling factor for women’s influence during a process. Therefore despite the constraints, the Korean peace process encompasses an opportunity—using inter-Korean women’s exchanges as informal peacebuilding activities that benefit from consistent and proactive advocacy by grassroots women’s organizations in South Korea.

Korean women have been using women-to-women exchanges (mainly socio-cultural exchanges) as part of peace movement partly due to the limited space for CSOs in the formal process. The history of inter-Korean women’s exchange dates back to 1991. Starting with the first that took place in May 1991 in Tokyo, Japan under the theme ‘Peace in Asia: The Role of Women’, several meetings took place in 1991–92 with South and North Korean and Japanese women. During the meeting, they discussed the issues of Korean unification and Japanese wartime sexual violence during World War II; the agendas that were jointly set by women from both countries. The inter-Korean women’s exchanges took place via media or third countries such as Japan, even after relations became strained with the hard-line policy of South Korea, and led to other activities such as humanitarian assistance to women and children in North Korea. 

This would be one form of people-to-people diplomacy, which is more evidently useful when high-level political relations are unfavourable for positive movement. Similarly, one researcher argues that such women-to-women diplomacy can be used as peacebuilding strategies in frozen conflicts by creating a bridge to official diplomacy. Existing literature on both people-to-people diplomacy and women-to-women diplomacy indicates that they also contribute to trust building and relationship building. 

Harnessing the opportunity of the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325

Amid the protracted and fluctuated peace process in the last two decades, Korean women have participated in the peace process through their direct representation, inclusive commissions and mass action, at different times and to a varying extent. Despite the low representation of women at the table and other constraints hindering broader inclusion of women, women have been leading informal peacebuilding through grassroots movements that recently led to international solidarity movements. They have also used women-to-women exchanges as a peacebuilding tool for trust- and relationship-building which can support formal diplomacy.

While North Korea has yet to lay any legal grounds for promoting women’s representation and participation in peace dialogues, since 2017 South Korea has attempted to strengthen its focus on the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda and it has adopted its second national action plan for implementation of the WPS agenda. This includes increasing the proportion of women in inter-Korean summit delegations and support teams, as well as in capacity-building programmes for inter-Korean relations experts, for future peace talks going forward. Although progress has been made it is limited since it is absent of any legally binding policies for gender inclusivity.

With this background, Korean women’s participation in the peace process could gain momentum for greater support, especially in the international framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as an efficient tool for its implementation. The 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (October 2020) will be an opportunity for Korean women’s peace movements to harness.


This backgrounder benefitted from discussions with Jeongsoo Kim, the Standing Representative of Women Making Peace, Youngsook Cho, Chair of the International Solidarity Centre of the Korea Women’s Associations United and Youngmi Cho, Executive Director of Korean Womens Movement for Peace. The author is grateful to them for their review and valuable insights.


To commemorate the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2020, SIPRI recognizes two decades of UN efforts to advance the women, peace and security agenda.


Yeonju Jung was a Research Assistant with the SIPRI Peace and Development Programme.