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PoliticsSouth Korea

Germany's Scholz to make brief, symbolic visit to S. Korea

May 19, 2023

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to travel to the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula before discussing security, trade and the Ukraine war with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

North Korean soldiers stand guard at the Demilitarized Zone
Scholz requested a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, as he wished to witness the division of the Korean Peninsula firsthandImage: Lee Yong-Ho/dpa/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to arrive in Seoul on Sunday to meet South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol — a move full of symbolic significance despite the fact that the visit is scheduled to last only a few hours. Scholz will arrive in South Korea from Japan, where he is attending the G7 summit in Hiroshima. He is scheduled to immediately travel to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that marks the border with North Korea. German government officials have been quoted as saying that Scholz requested a visit to the DMZ as he wished to witness the division of the Korean Peninsula firsthand. The divide echoes the split between East and West Germany that developed in the wake of World War II and was only resolved in 1990, after the two German states agreed to once again become a unified nation.

After the visit to the DMZ, the chancellor is scheduled to return to Seoul for discussions with President Yoon. Scholz and his wife, Britta Ernst, will attend a dinner hosted by the South Korean leader before flying out for Germany later the same evening.

Scholz's predecessor, Angela Merkel, traveled to South Korea for a G20 summit in 2010, but Scholz is the first German chancellor to visit the country for bilateral talks since Helmut Kohl in 1993.

Security expected to take center stage

Scholz and the Korean leader have a number of shared concerns to address in their talks, including regional security challenges in Northeast Asia such as the unpredictable regime in North Korea and the increasingly aggressive leadership in Beijing.

Japan, South Korea put new focus on militaries

In recent years, the German frigate Bayern and a flight of German fighter aircraft have taken part in multilateral exercises with their South Korean, US and Japanese counterparts.

According to analysts, Yoon is keen for the German chancellor to agree to sending more military units to the Indo-Pacific region in future as a demonstration of Germany's commitment to security.

The war in Ukraine will be another major topic — South Korea has already contributed non-lethal military equipment, such as medical aid, body armor and generators, to Ukraine. During his visit, Scholz may try to pressure Seoul to directly provide military hardware to hard-pressed Kyiv. So far, Yoon's administration has been reluctant to do so, getting around the issue by providing artillery shells to the US and thus enabling Washington to provide a similar amount of shells from its own stockpiles to Ukraine.

Yoon is also likely to seek to work more closely with German companies on trade and investment, including in the areas of renewable energies, according to analysts.

'Deep respect and affection' for Germany

Given the brevity of Scholz's trip, no major announcements are expected following his meeting with Yoon. But for many South Koreans, the visit goes beyond day-to-day politics.   

"Regional security will be one of the top priorities and the war in Ukraine is still going on, but for us Koreans it is important that the leader of a nation that was once completely divided is coming here to see our situation," said Lim Eunjung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University in Gongju.

A combined photo showing headshots of Germany's Olaf Scholz and South Korea's Yook Suk-yeol side by side
Scholz (left) will be the first German chancellor to visit South Korea for direct talks in 30 yearsImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance // Oliver Contreras/UPI/Newscom/picture alliance

"I feel that Koreans have a deep respect and affection for Germany because of what we as nations have been through," she told DW. "And when we look at Germany today, their experiences of reunion and economic development, we see what is possible. We want that as well."

Adding to the symbolism of the visit, this year also marks the 140th anniversary of the establishment of formal bilateral relations between Germany and South Korea and the signing in November 1883 of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, Yonhap News reported.

Showing solidarity, connection between East and West

Patrick Hein, a lecturer in political science at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said Scholz's visit to the DMZ also carries weight.

"That is a significant stop when he is only in Korea for a very short time and many foreign leaders do not go there at all," he explained. "I think the German leader wants to show solidarity on many levels with Yoon, especially at a time when the North-South relationship is so very tense."

South Korea: Germany is a major 'values partner' for us

Hein noted that the two leaders would likely discuss reform of the United Nations Security Council, which both governments favor, as well as the reconstruction of Ukraine after the fighting there is over.

Lim Eunjung said all support expressed by European nations for South Korea was gratefully received as it has a nuclear-armed neighbor north of the DMZ. The country is also flanked to the north by Russia and to the west by China.

"Korea is geographically a long way from Europe, of course, but events in East Asia and Europe influence each other so we are connected, and it is important that we continue to work together as like-minded nations," she added.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Correction, May 19, 2023: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 2023 was the 140th anniversary of the establishment of formal bilateral relations between Germany and Russia. It is, in fact, Germany and Korea. DW apologizes for the error.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea