PAJU - A group of women peace activists, led by American feminist Gloria Steinem, made a rare crossing of one of the world’s most militarised borders Sunday to promote reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Shortly before midday (0300 GMT) the group of 30 activists rode by bus through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas after spending several days in Pyongyang — a stay that triggered criticism they were being used as propaganda tools by the North. The group had originally wanted to cross the DMZ through the Panmunjom “truce village”, where North and South Korean soldiers stand just metres apart in a permanent, Cold War face-off over the border.

With this year marking the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula, the marchers hope to draw attention to the need for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice that halted - but technically never ended - the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The group, which includes Nobel peace laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire, has also highlighted the anguish of divided families who have had little or no contact since the separation into North and South.

Despite the disappointment at not crossing through Panmunjom, Maguire and Gbowee said the fact that the crossing had been approved at all was a victory. Despite its name, the DMZ is one of the world’s most heavily militarised frontiers, bristling with watchtowers and landmines, and crossings through the land border are extremely rare.

“We bought one-way tickets for Pyongyang not even knowing whether we would need to fly back to Beijing,” Gbowee said during a press conference live-streamed from a Pyongyang hotel room on Saturday. “Not only did we receive the blessing for our historic crossing, we’ve gotten both Korean governments to communicate. That is a success,” she said.

But the marchers have had their detractors, particularly after North Korea’s state media published comments by some members — later denied — praising North Korea’s founder leader Kim Il-Sung. Such reports have fuelled earlier criticism that North Korea would manipulate the border-crossing project for propaganda purposes, and that the activists were not paying enough attention to North Korea’s dismal human rights record.

In an editorial in the Washington Post last week, Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, had blasted Steinem and her fellow activists for allowing North Korea to engage in “human rights theatre intended to cover up its death camps and crimes against humanity”. Steinem has dismissed the criticism, insisting the group were focused on breaking through barriers to “make human connections” and highlight the suffering that the Korean peninsula’s absolute division continues to impose. “We achieved what we set out to do, which is to engage in citizen diplomacy,” she said Saturday.