Hardly comparable: How the Koreas see German reunification | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.11.2019
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Hardly comparable: How the Koreas see German reunification

The comparison with Germany is obvious, but it's limping: Hardly anyone in South Korea currently believes in reunification. The differences with the North are too great — and the everyday problems too pressing.

Half a century of German history in one minute: a wall divides Germany and threatening shadowy soldiers patrol in front of the impenetrable wall. The wall cracks, individual stones fall out, the wall falls and people celebrate freedom and peace.

That was the animation projected onto a Seoul Square high-rise building, which also houses the German Embassy, to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The German Embassy wanted to draw as much attention as possible to the anniversary in the metropolis of 10 million people. 

Most South Koreans know the recent German history at least in broad outlines, since many things seem comparable at first glance: The division was a result of war, two areas completely different both economically and politically — with an economic miracle in the south, lack economy in the communist north.

However, the dividing line between North and South Korea is much greater than it ever was between East and West Germany. For three years, the two sides waged a bloody war against each other. And since the Korean peninsula was split, there has virtually been no contact, no letters and no exchanges — but instead complete isolation and provocations.

Unity as a long-term goal

Nevertheless, a reunification could also succeed in Korea — even by 2045, as predicted by the liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Independence Day in August. With such a long-term forecast, the experience of the protracted German reunification process also plays a decisive role.

The successes and mistakes of the  German reunification process are being carefully analyzed in both parts of Korea. After all, reunification in South and North Korea is a declared state goal, albeit under different auspices. It is no coincidence that the last three presidents of South Korea all delivered their keynote speeches on foreign policy in Germany at the beginning of their term of office.

People watch a TV broadcast showing a file footage for a news report on North Korea firing two projectiles, possibly missiles, into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan, in Seoul.

North Korea wants to strengthen its negotiating position with military provocations

Moon's policy of rapprochement with North Korea had indeed brought movement towards easing the conflict after decades of stagnation. But the initial euphoria has long since vanished, the negotiations are now at a standstill and the North is once again trying to strengthen its negotiating position vis-à-vis the US with military provocations. At present, there is little to suggest a trusting rapprochement, a peace agreement or a complete de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

A sluggish economy

But with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, South Koreans have other concerns. The trade disputes between the US and China, as well as their own trade conflict with the former colonial power Japan, have severely afflicted the South Korean export industry, weakening the economy and the labor market.

Anti-Japan demonstration near Japanese Embassy in Seoul

More than a trade dispute: Anti-Japanese resentments in South Korea

Economic policy and rapprochement with North Korea have further deepened the already wide rifts in South Korean society. This can also be seen by reactions to DW articles marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were published by the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo.

The explainer articles addressed frequently asked questions, including: How did the transition from a socialist planned economy to a market economy succeed? How was the military brought together? What happened to the Stasi files? Who profited from monetary union? Why do many East Germans leave their homeland?

Divided society

The experiences and answers gathered in Germany could hardly be transferred to Korea, as many conservative readers would attest. Skeptical conservatives would say the North should not be trusted, and that the South Korean government's approach borders on treason. The more liberal readers, on the other hand, are banking on dialogue — even if there is, at the moment, hardly any progress or signs of hope. 

Both sides agree, however, that the North remains unpredictable, that reunification would entail enormous financial burdens and that growing together would take decades. In this respect, the German experience is comparable.

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