Ostpolitik in Korea

Korea can’t just copy-paste the German reunification model

Willy Brandt Moscow Ostpolitik Detente
Ground-breaking politics in 1970s: West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (2nd left) meeting East German officials in Moscow. Source: Picture Alliance.

If we are to believe US nuclear scientists and their infamous “Doomsday Clock,” the conflict over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has pushed the world closer to an atomic apocalypse. The risk of a nuclear war has reached the level it was last at during the Cuban missile crisis, they have warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It has pushed the clock forward by 30 seconds. Now it’s just two minutes before midnight.

But all of a sudden the hands of that clock seem to be moving backwards. There are signs of a political spring dawning on the ice-covered Korean peninsula. First, we saw a show of reconciliation at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, then a handshake between North Korea’s representative and the South Korean president and now a change of course in Washington.

The sudden detente is a sensation because it has come as a complete surprise. But caution is warranted. The hopes of peace it has triggered are premature.

Not too surprisingly, Mike Pence avoided any contact with the North Koreans on his visit to Pyeongchang. The US vice president remained demonstratively seated during the standing ovations that greeted the joint entry of the Korean teams during the opening ceremony. Nonetheless, Mr. Pence also outlined America’s new strategy during his flight back home. The US is abandoning its policy of totally isolating North Korea, and is backing the detente policy of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

China doesn't want to lose North Korea as a buffer state.

Donald Trump’s administration has gone from threats of “fire and fury” and “total destruction” to a sudden readiness to talk. What’s happened?

Without a doubt, there are signs of movement in what has become an intractable conflict. For Mr. Moon, that in itself is a big success. He plans to end the years of silence by entering into a dialogue with the tyranny north of the 38th parallel. He’s promised to continue the “spirit of Ostpolitik” in reference to the Cold War strategy of former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt who sought to normalize relations with the Eastern Bloc.

But Mr. Brandt’s policy is of limited use as a blueprint for Korea, precisely because it was successful. South Korean politicians seeking detente may see German reunification as a model. Yet to the North Korean regime, it’s the writing on the wall. Unification was a disaster for Stasi staff and party apparatchiks who found themselves ostracized and on trial — the North Koreans have drawn their conclusions from East Germany’s demise.

Besides, the international environment is different. It wasn’t just the Germans who were ready to “turn over a new leaf of history,” as Mr. Brandt put it. The Soviets were too. Today, though, China doesn’t want to lose North Korea as a buffer state. The downfall of the GDR was a lesson for Beijing too. Welcome though Mr. Moon’s initiative may be in light of the risk of nuclear war, a Korea united in peace is a distant prospect indeed. In the Far East, Ostpolitik has hit its limits.

To reach the author: koch@handelsblatt.com.

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