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'Benefits outweigh costs'

Interview: Gabriel DominguezOctober 1, 2014

While most South Koreans say they want a reunited Korea, there are concerns about the cost. But German Ambassador Rolf Mafael tells DW many overlook not only the political, but also the long-term economic advantages.

Rolf Mafael
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jörg Carstensen

After more than six decades of division and rivalry between the two Koreas, the capitalist south has become a fully industrialized nation and one of the world's richest and most advanced economies. In the meantime, the poor, isolated and highly secretive north has remained largely unreformed and essentially a closed dictatorial state, with economic activity controlled by the Communist Party.

A year ago, South Korea's Finance Ministry estimated that unification of the two Koreas - which have been fierce rivals since the 1950-53 Korean war - could cost the south up to seven percent of annual GDP for a decade. But according to new poll conducted by Seoul National University, while 45.8 percent of South Koreans are in favor of a unified peninsula, the vast majority is only willing to make a token contribution to the cost of bringing the divided countries back together.

On the occasion of the Day of German Unity on October 3, Rolf Mafael, German Ambassador to South Korea, tells DW that Germany can offer many lessons to both Koreas as it has had similar experiences with the numerous and complex aspects related to its own reunification.

DW: To what extent is the situation on the Korean peninsula comparable to that of Germany in 1989?

South Korean Kim Sung-yoon, 96, right, meets with her North Korean sister Kim Seok Ryu, 80, during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 (AP Photo/Yonhap, Lee Ji-eun)
Mafael: 'The standard of living on the Korean peninsula will rise'Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Ambassador Mafael: There are similarities regarding both shared experiences and the historical and ideological contexts of the Cold War which led to the division of the two nations. But there are also important differences: West and East Germany never waged war against each other, relations were far better (and actually existed), and were maintained for many decades.

Moreover, the former Soviet Union had an enormous influence on the politics of the German Democratic Republic which was to become critical in the developments leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The situation on the Korean Peninsula today is rather similar to that in Germany in the early 1960s during the intensification of the East-West conflict, as opposed to the situation in 1989.

What can South Korea learn from German reunification?

The German "Ostpolitik" (German: "Eastern Policy") contributed significantly to a rapprochement between East and West Germany, especially at the societal level. This ultimately laid the foundations for a peaceful reunification, with the agreement of all neighboring states. The creation of trust is of central importance to enable the further development of the overall political situation.

What concerns does South Korea have regarding a possible reunification?

One of the biggest concerns is the substantial economic burden associated with a possible reunification. Many people fear a negative impact on the living standards of the South Korean population. However, the mid and long-term economic and political benefits are set to far outweigh the costs; an aspect which is often overlooked. The standard of living on the Korean peninsula will rise, particularly in the north, and the economic potential of a reunified Korea - with a market of more than 75 million people and complementary economic factors - will clearly exceed the initial costs. There is also a potentially enormous peace dividend, both economically and politically. For instance, just imagine how much money could be saved in terms of military spending alone.

How is the topic of reunification discussed in Korean society?

Since South Korean President Park Geun-hye included the topic of reunification in her speech in the German city of Dresden in March of this year, and hinted at moving past the division of Korea, it has been discussed extensively in the wider community.

Among the younger generations though, the interest in the subject is less pronounced and quite different from among those in older generations, whose own life experience overlaps directly with the division of the country. For the younger South Koreans' concerns about the possible economic repercussions often overshadow the discussion.

Bildergalerie Mauerfall
Germany can be of particular help as it has had similar experiences with the numerous and complex aspects related to its own reunification, says Ambassador MafaelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How can Germany help enable Korean reunification?

Germany can be of particular help because it has had similar experiences with the numerous and complex aspects related to its own reunification. The German-Korean consultative body on unification issues - a cooperation between the Korean Ministry of Unification and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs - has been operating since 2010.

This high-level committee has already met four times, and consulted on issues such as the German economic, monetary and social union.

Other issues that have been discussed include the unification of the former GDR armed forces with those of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), privatization, the management of party assets and mass organizations of the GDR as well as the settlement of claims by previous owners.

On September 18, Germany and Korea announced they would set up another bilateral expert panel to deal specifically with the foreign policy aspects of the reunification issue. Here at the German embassy we and the political foundations also hold regular, intensive discussions on the issue with a number of South Korean political, economic and civil society actors.

Rolf Mafael is Germany's Ambassador to South Korea.