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South Korea looks to Germany as a model of reunification

October 3, 2021

As Germany marks 31 years since reunification, North and South Korea are still at loggerheads over the question of reuniting their peninsula and how the cost of rebuilding the North will be borne.

Soldiers from North and South Korea verify the removal of guard posts on each side of the Demilitarized Zone
In the event of reunification, analysts have suggested the cost to South Korea could be as much as $3 trillionImage: Reuters/South Korean Defence Ministry

With just seven months left before he steps down as president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in and his government remain committed to their long-held dream of reuniting the two halves of the Korean Peninsula into a single nation.

And, with Germany as one of the very few countries with recent experience of a similar amalgamation of two states, Unification Minister Lee In-young is traveling to Europe to discuss what can be learned from the events leading up to German reunification in 1990 and subsequent developments.

Analysts suggest Moon and Lee have been "frustrated" by the failure to advance their agenda of bringing the two Koreas closer together over the last five years. But they point out that the reason for cross-border relations being at an impasse does not lie in the South.

Pyongyang's intransigence and refusal to even communicate with Seoul for much of the last year has effectively halted the already stunted bilateral relationship, while the North has in recent weeks made efforts at rapprochement even more complicated with a series of missile launches. North Korea on Friday confirmed that it had tested a new anti-aircraft missile the previous day, while on Tuesday it launched a weapon that the regime described as a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide missile.

The United States and Japan have both condemned the launches, with the firing of the hypersonic missile described as a "violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions." 

Unification remains 'a long-term prospect'

On Wednesday, a day bracketed by the North's most recent missile tests, Lee flew to Europe for talks with government officials in Belgium and Sweden before traveling on to Germany.

Lee was due to attend a ceremony on Sunday to mark the 31st anniversary of German reunification, at the invitation of the German parliament. He also delivered a lecture on inter-Korean relations at Berlin's Free University on Saturday and will meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday to discuss Germany's experience before and after unification, and the potential parallels on the Korean Peninsula.

And while Germany faced huge obstacles in 1990 — and many more that it had not anticipated in the years immediately after the two states came together — the situation in the Koreas is clearly even more complicated, according to analysts.

One major problem that needs to be overcome, they point out, is that North Korea still considers itself to be the sole legitimate regime on the peninsula. It has long insisted that any future reunification must be completed on its terms and under its direction. The Kim dynasty ruling a united Korean Peninsula would, it is assumed, hold little appeal for the vast majority of the 52 million residents of South Korea.

"The government has finally realized that it is nearly out of time and that not all its plans will be achieved, including building better ties with North Korea and advancing the reunification agenda," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.

"Lee is frustrated because the North has refused to give ground and he has not been able to do anything," she told DW. "At this point, there is little more that he can do other than go to a country that has been through a similar experience, talk with government officials there and try to keep the issue moving forward in that way." 

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, agrees that present conditions on the peninsula — where the North continues to defy expectations and survive shortages of food, medicines and virtually all the comforts that their counterparts in the South enjoy — mean that unification remains "a long-term prospect."

'German unification cannot provide a model'

"While Pyongyang refuses to engage on the many inter-Korean projects that Seoul proposes, Lee can seek support and advice from international partners," he said. "One of the lessons from the German experience is that historical change can come quickly and unexpectedly, so advance coordination and preparation are essential."

"But Europeans know that German unification cannot provide a model. Compared to East Germany, North Korea has been isolated for a longer duration, is more threatening with nuclear weapons and missiles, suffers greater economic mismanagement and commits worse human rights violations," he added.

Moreover, he added, the influence of the rising power of China is "a more complicating factor than Russia was for Germany." 

"At the end of the Cold War, Moscow could be paid to respect German preferences," he said. "Beijing is more powerful today and determined to exercise its interests over the Korean Peninsula." 

And while there were some sharp differences between East and West Germany in 1990, the gulf between life in North and South Korea today is vast. The North's economy generates a fraction of the South's output, which is the fourth-largest in Asia and 10th-biggest in the world. South Korea's nominal GDP is $1.80 trillion (€1.55 trillion) and per capita income averages $47,000 a year. In contrast, the North's GDP was estimated at $27.4 billion in 2020 and annual per capita income is below $2,000.

Years of economic mismanagement, combined with investment in nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, means industry, agriculture and infrastructure throughout North Korea are effectively inoperable, leaving the nation with little more than the raw materials that it can mine.

In the event of reunification, analysts have suggested that the cost to the South could be more than $3 trillion — and others have warned that additional, unanticipated costs would inevitably crop up.

Mass migration 

Given the poor standard of living in the North and the ambitions of many citizens of the secretive state to defect, Ahn believes a majority of the 26 million residents of the North would immediately attempt to cross the border to the South — mirroring West Germany's experience in 1990.

Such a massive inflow of poverty-stricken people, combined with the massive costs associated with rebuilding the North, would threaten the economic well-being of the South, she said.

"There have been many claims that the North was on the brink of collapse over the years and one recent suggestion put it at 30 or 40 years," she said. "But there is always the possibility of Kim Jong Un being taken ill and dying or of a coup in Pyongyang. These things can happen very suddenly, and the South needs to be prepared for any eventuality," she said.

"But if the regime did collapse, there could be a situation like we saw in Germany," she added. "The South cannot absorb that many people all at the same time, so I believe we need to keep the border at the Demilitarized Zone to halt any effort at mass migration while the world helps to rebuild the North."

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