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German lessons

Julian Ryall, TokyoSeptember 25, 2014

Berlin and Seoul set up advisory panel to pass on the foreign policy lessons Germany learned from reunification in 1990, although analysts suggest hurdles are much higher for a divided Korean peninsula.

South Korean Kim Sung-Bok (R), 90, meets his North Korean daughter Kim Hee-Sook (L), 61, during a family reunion after being separated for 60 years following the Korean War on November 3, 2010 in Mount Kumgang, North Korea (Photo: Kim Chang-Gil-Korea Pool/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

Not many aspects of German reunification passed off without a hitch when the process began nearly a quarter of a century ago, with numerous bumps in the road only visible after the nation had set out on the journey to bring the two sides back together. But the lessons that were learned still have resonance today and some of the politicians, academics and bureaucrats who steered Germany through those difficult times are sharing their knowledge and experience with another country that has been divided for decades.

On September 18, Markus Ederer, a German foreign ministry secretary, and Kim Jae-shin, South Korean ambassador to Germany, signed a memorandum of understanding in Berlin on the creation of a group to offer advice specifically on foreign policy as the two Koreas move closer to reunification.

According to the German Foreign Ministry, the panel will consist of between 12 and 14 experts from both sides. Markus Meckel, the penultimate foreign minister of the former German Democratic Republic, will be on the panel, along with Professor Michael Staak, of the Universitat der Bundeswehr in Hamburg, and Dr Lee Eun-jeung of the Freie Universitat Berlin.

Park Geun Hye and Angela Merkel (Photo: Soeren Stache/dpa)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged support for Korean reunificationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Meeting in Seoul

The first meeting of the panel has been scheduled for late October in Seoul, and experts point out that the committee has a lot of ground to cover.

"Where do they start?" asked Rah Jong-yil, former South Korean ambassador to London and Tokyo, and subsequently head of the South Korean National Intelligence Service. "Much of what is discussed will be theoretical because we do not know exactly how reunification of North and South will take place," he told DW. "Will it happen in the near future? Will it be caused by the collapse of North Korea? Will it be peaceful? There are so many questions."

One of the earliest needs of a reunified Korea will be economic assistance for the North and the rebuilding of infrastructure that has been little updated since Japan's occupation forces withdrew in 1945, Rah said. The North will need agricultural reforms, the introduction of banking systems, governance, the provision of healthcare and a myriad other issues.

International assistance

"We believe that the international community will be able to provide funds for all the work that needs to be done, as wall as institutions like the Asia Development Bank," the former ambassador said.

Daniel Pinkston, a Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, told DW that South Korea's Ministry of Unification has examined several different cases of countries that attempt unification or, on the other hand, the transfer of political power or dissolution into a number of smaller states.

As well as Germany, the ministry has considered the experience of Northern Ireland and South Africa, which can be considered relatively positive transitions, as well as the more chaotic dissolution of the former Soviet Union.

Pinkston believes that the most likely scenario - one that is borne out by historical experience - is that it will take some form of revolution in North Korea for the regime there to fall, meaning that the transition to a unified peninsula will be fraught with danger.

National security concerns

"There will be a whole matrix of issues that will need to be addressed, and some of them will be very urgent, such as national security," he added.

The international community will be anxious to locate and secure people, technology and materials that make up Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, Pinkston emphasized.

At the same time, there will be a need to provide humanitarian assistance to a population that has been indoctrinated to not trust - and even detest - outsiders.

"The rest of the world would need to ensure public health, provide food security, get logistics in place, provide energy and heating in the bitterly cold Korean winter - and if we screw this up at the beginning, then it would be very easy to alienate the people we are trying to help, to create resentment and even, potentially, an insurgency," the expert said, adding that "these initial responses, if they are mismanaged, will have long-term repercussions for the country and the wider international community."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) guides the multiple-rocket launching drill of women's sub-units under KPA Unit 851, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) April 24, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/KCNA)
North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the worldImage: Reuters

Germany 'good template'

And while he believes that the German initiative offers a "good template" and that South Korea is keen to get any advice on how best it can go about bringing the two sides of the country together once more, he believes it will be a protracted process and far more complicated than German reunification, not least because East Germany had some modern industry and was more aware of what was going on beyond the Berlin Wall.

North Koreans, on the other hand, have little in the way of industry and infrastructure and have been isolated from the rest of the world since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

Nevertheless, Rah Jong-yil insists that the people of South Korea are not put off at the inevitable cost of reunification on their lives.

"It is true that over the years, interest among South Koreans in reunification - particularly the younger generation - has declined," he said. "But I believe that when the time comes, they will demonstrate their desire for this country to become one again."