During his visit to the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was reminded of the painful divide his own country ended just 15 years ago.
The Demilitarized Zone evokes memories of the inner-German border
"It's like taking a trip back into a suppressed period of time," Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as his eyes surveyed the barbed wire, the mine fields and the watch towers dividing the two Koreas. For decades, the 38th Parallel has separated the poverty-stricken communist North Korea from the economically prosperous South Korea.
The German foreign minister referred to the border running from coast-to-coast across the peninsula as a "death strip" and recalled Germany's own division, the armed border and the Berlin Wall. But they all came down in 1989 when Germany was reunited.
South Korean soldiers on patrol
The heavily guarded border between the two Koreas serves as the last remainder of the Cold War.
A Cold War frontier
The tour along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 241-kilometer long and four-kilometer wide stretch of no-man's land, was for Steinmeier like a trip back into Germany's own past. Escorted by a squad of police motorcycles, the foreign minister passed the Tongil Bridge ( The Bridge of Unity) and control points such as "Charlie" -- like the former checkpoint on the Friedrichstrasse in downtown Berlin.
"The German delegation, along with traveling journalists, was reminded when it viewed the Demilitarized Zone what it was like to live in a divided country," the minister said at a press conference in Seoul.
South Korean soldiers patrol near the demilitarized zone (DMZ)
But whereas Germany has enjoyed unification between the former communist East and the democratic West for over 15 years, more than a million armed soldiers stand along the DMZ. South Korea and North Korea are still at war with each other. Even 53 years after the end of the Korean War, there is still no peace treaty.
Striving for unification
"Unification is a great wish for all citizens on the peninsula," Steinmeier's counterpart Ban Ki Moon told his German visitor. South Korea has always regarded German unification as a model of what it would like to achieve, he said.
Comparing the two countries' divided history, Ban said South Korea had studied Germany's unification experience closely over the past 15 years. If it at some point in the future the two Koreas should actually decide to unite, South Korea will be forced to carry the weight of the economic costs -- as was the case for West Germany.
Just as unification had its opponents in Germany, many business leaders in South Korea have a more sober approach to unification. They fear tremendous costs and loss of competition on the global market while they pay to bring the impoverished North Korea up to par.
North Korea's army on military parade
The German slogan from 1989, "We are one people," is rarely shouted with enthusiasm in both parts of the Korean peninsula. In the North, western observers report a deep-rooted indoctrination and mistrust of the capitalistic oriented southern neighbors.
But Ban Ki Moon is optimistic the goal will be reached one day. He speaks of several phases on the road to unification. At the moment, the two Koreas are in the midst of the first phase of communication and exchange. The next phase is alliance and than unification. "Until then we have a lot of work ahead of us," he told Steinmeier.