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Divided they stand

Martin Fritz, Tokyo / act
April 12, 2013

The Korean Peninsula has been divided for almost 70 years. However, observers do not expect a reunification any time soon. Not only are the two states politically at odds, their economies are worlds apart.

Military guard posts of South Korea (front) and North Korea (far) stand opposite each other as seen from in the border city of Paju on March 20, 2013. North Korea on March 20 condemned training flights by nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers over the Korean peninsula as an 'unpardonable provocation' and threatened military action if they continue. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Nordkorea Grenze zu SüdkoreaImage: AFP/Getty Images

When the new millennium began there were still high hopes for Korea. President Kim Dae Jung said a new era had begun after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Il in Pyongyang in June 2000. Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his "Sunshine Policy" which was akin to Willy Brandt's "Ostpolitik."

He was the first president to offer Pyongyang economic support without strings attached. He made it clear that Seoul wasn't interested in reincorporating the North. His goal was equal relations and peaceful coexistence. The idea was that trade and investment would propel North Korea's transformation into a market economy. A middle-class would emerge and so would a multi-party democracy - as had happened in South Korea.

No transformation through rapprochement

The South could and wanted to help the North and the North could accept the help because after four decades, it had become clear whose system had triumphed, which economic system was superior. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the enemy and rival North Korea became a state in need of help. But up to now, the expectations of the rich brother in the South have not been fulfilled.

North Korean farmers work at their rice fields AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Many North Koreans survive on very little food a day, they sometimes eat only riceImage: Getty Images

The North accepted shipments of fertilizers, rice and crops. It got hard currency from the joint Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the industrial complex Kaesong.

However, Kim Jong Il did not go to the South as promised. He equipped his country with nuclear arms and carrier rockets.

When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power, he said there would only be further help on the condition of return trade-offs from Pyongyang. Relations have been icy ever since.

Nationalism in the North

North Korea considers itself as the only party able to unify the Korean nation. It sees the South as nothing more than a lackey of the US. The founder of the state Kim Il Sung said from the start that the North was interested in a strong, unified Korea. He termed the Korean War a patriotic war of liberation and stage-managed himself as the patriarch of the Korean nation.

South Korean marines patrol on Yeonpyeong island REUTERS/Yoon Tae-hyun/Yonhap
The South Korean army is on alertImage: Reuters

But "reunification" has remained merely a slogan in North Korea because the regime has linked it to certain conditions which could not be fulfilled. Pyongyang wants the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. It wants a Communist Party to be allowed in the South and it wants the formation of a confederation with a joint government.

On the other had, it does not want there to be more contact between the two states. It has no interest in the North Korean population finding out that South Korea is the more attractive part of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, isolation is actively promoted and any thaw comes with automatic limitations.

Differences with Germany

The situation on the Korean Peninsula now is much different than the situation was for Germany right before and during its reunification. In Germany's case, there had always been contact between the East and the West. East Germans knew a lot about West Germany because of television and telephone conversations with relatives. They also had a relatively realistic image of the advantages and disadvantages of life under market conditions.

In North Korea, it is illegal to possess South Korean DVDs of films or television shows. It is also illegal to listen to South Korean radio stations. Moreover, if a South Korean has any contact with the North or with North Koreans without permission, he is likely to end up in jail. The fact that there had been no change through rapprochement prompted the South to drop the idea of reunification from its political agenda - it was clear the process would be very slow and would be difficult to achieve in both political and economic terms.

South Korean soldiers work on their K-9 self-propelled artillery vehicles AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
US and South Korean soldiers often engage in joint exercisesImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

In terms of population, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were four West Germans for every East German. There are currently two South Koreans for every North Korean. The North is 17 times poorer than the South per capita and four times poorer than China. One reason the South continues to support the North's economy is to mitigate the costs in the event of reunification.

No one expects to see the Koreas reunite as suddenly as the two Germanys did. Journalists in Seoul are told there are no plans for anything like that to happen.

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