They are neighbors, relatives - and enemies. Two countries and two systems have coexisted for almost 70 years. Right now, reunification seems a remote idea, but those thinking of it look to Germany for inspiration.
Fewer and fewer people can actually remember that the Korean Peninsula was once the home of one nation. People who actually experienced that era have reached a ripe old age. They now live on one side of the border, often cut off from relatives residing on the other side. Geographically, they may even only live a few kilometers away but they are nonetheless worlds apart from each other.
It is an image that evokes memories of Germany's past. The majority of Germans feel that other countries can benefit from their experience as a divided nation. According to a survey conducted for DW, 82 percent of participants believe that the elimination of the inner German border in 1990 - after 40 years of separation - has set an example for others. For Korea, too?
No, says Dr. Han Un-Suk, who teaches at Tubingen University's Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies in Germany. He told DW that at the moment, it is not possible to apply the German model to Korea. He said, "North Korea will not fall apart in the foreseeable future. Its Chinese ally cannot be compared to the Soviet Union in 1989-90." Japan would also prefer a divided Korea because a reunited nation by China's side would be a nightmare. "Besides, in East Asia, there is no regional security conference like the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that can work out compromises in cases of conflicting interests and constructively contribute to the reunification of both parts of the peninsula," added the Asia scholar.
Han also sees another difference between Germany and the Korean Peninsula. The ideological conflicts between the North and the South were strongly influenced by the Korean War (1950-53) "South Korean society has accepted the demonization of North Korea prevalent in conservative media. Efforts to judge North Korea objectively are weak."
German diplomat Rolf Mafael shares this view. He was appointed ambassador to Seoul in the summer of 2012. He told DW that the ideological and historical similarities to Germany that led to the division during the Cold War do exist on the Korean peninsula but added, "there are also significant differences. West and East Germany never went to war against each other. Interactions between the two populations were possible, so they were much stronger and became established over decades."
Decades of two countries two systems
The separation of Korea has been literally chiseled in stone: Two official Korean states have existed since 1948. Between 1950 and 1953, they fought a bitter war against each other, but it is still not over in terms of international law. No peace treaty has ever been signed, only an armistice agreement.
Current South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has put the topic of reunification demonstratively high on her agenda. He has often spoken of the past publicly. When he visited Germany in the spring of 2014, he said, "We are one people," in German in a speech he gave in Dresden. Park used the expression that was popular right after Germany was reunified. "The day will come when these powerful words that united people in the East and West of Germany will reverberate on the Korean Peninsula," he said.
Germany's reunification happened quickly, almost overnight - something that is inconceivable in Korea. The peninsula would need too much time to reunify, says Han. "It must be planned long-term and with care. First of all, we must radically change our social policies. If we do not take this step, then reunification would lead to dangerous social conflicts and maybe even to disaster."
If North and South Korea were ever to become one country, Asia scholar Han thinks Germany could become an important role model. People should have a look at what happened in Germany back then – what went well, and what did not. "For example, we must privatize state-owned enterprises differently. And, we must try to involve the highest possible number of North Korean elites in the reunification process." The North Korean population must not be given the impression it is being colonialized.
Little interest in reunification among young people
In South Korea, views on reunification vary. "The younger generation's interest is significantly less pronounced than the older one's, whose own personal experiences coincide with the division of the country," explains Rolf Mafael. Questions arising about reunification show different priorities: "The younger generation often expresses concern about possible economic burdens."
The media also reinforce the reservations, says Han Un-Suk. "It fuels fears of problems that could result from a reunification: the costs and tougher competition in the labor market. South Korea's conservative and progressive camps are also divided by social and ideological conflicts with regard to North Korean policies – their dissent has negative influence on the public perception of reunification.
The fear of financial costs
Of course, reunification would be costly. "In the case of unification in 2020, the South Korean ministry of reunification predicts financial costs between 379 billion and 1.26 trillion dollars," says Han. And a scenario ten years after that would probably be even more expensive with estimated costs at between 813 billion and 2.83 trillion dollars. German unification costs have already exceeded 2 trillion euros (2.2 trillion dollars) and are far from over, even 25 years later.
Given these figures, it comes as no surprise that many people in South Korea greatly fear a negative impact on their standard of living. But German Ambassador Mafael feels that in the medium and long term, this fear is unfounded as the benefits of reunification would outweigh the disadvantages. "The standard of living will rise, especially in North Korea. And the economic potential of a reunified Korea with a market of 75 million people would then exceed the initial costs. Han, the Asia scholar from Tubingen, agrees and says, "In 2014 the Korean parliament predicted that the benefits of a potential reunion in 2015 would exceed the costs: within 45 years, the benefits would be triple the amount of the costs."
Han believes that reunification is possible, but under one condition: "It cannot happen on the basis of compromise and agreement, but instead only if North Korea fell apart. A collapse would not take place through pressure. The country must open its door to the outside world and intensify inner Korean interaction and trade." That is why - after a phase of Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine politics" - the confrontational policies of the conservative South Korean governments have actually stabilized North Korean leadership.
Meanwhile, separated families are running out of time. Each year, thousands die without ever having seen their relatives on the other side of the border again.