Great Divides

Germany to Korea: Mind the Gap

Korea's DMZ, where the Cold War continues. Source: DPA
Korea's Demilitarized Zone, where the Cold War continues.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Korean peninsula has been split into two countries for nearly seven decades, and many nations fear North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Both sides agreed to work on a unification process in 2002, but this has still not happened.

  • Facts


    • Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 till 1945. At the end of the second World War, the country was divided up with America controlling the southern part and Russia the north.
    • Experts on the reunification of Germany are advising South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
    • The Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation is advising North Korea on renewable energies, urban planning and regional structural policy.
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Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president, chose a symbolically loaded place to make a speech about the reunification of a nation that has been split for 69 years. She did it in Dresden, in March, during her visit to Germany.

The message of her speech: “I believe that exactly as the economic miracle on the Han river followed the miracle of the Rhine, the reunification of Germany will also be enacted on the Korean peninsula.” This year, the daughter of the dictator Park Chun-hee, who turned South Korea from an agricultural to an industrial nation, is pushing preparation for a reunification. She is leading a new committee, and is determined to learn from Germany’s successes and mistakes.

“The situation in Korea is markedly different to that in former Germany. The differences in income are significantly greater, and the sizes of the respective populations are considerably closer than in Germany,” said Johannes Ludewig, a member of the German consulting committee for South Korea.

When the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, Mr. Ludewig was department leader in Helmut Kohl’s federal chancellery and later his commissioner for the eastern federal states. He has seen the importance of being able to react swiftly. “They need a circle of people on the state secretary level, who work constantly together and can make decisions quickly.”

“We wanted the unification without considering the costs – now, we are thinking about the economic consequences.”

Lee Eun-young, Law professor, Hankuk University for Foreign Studies

Lee Eun-young, a law professor at Hankuk University for foreign studies, is also pushing for reunification. The former parliamentary member, who got her doctorate in Tübingen, has been participating in German-Korean panels for many years. Shortly after the reunification, Korea sought an exchange with Germany, Ms. Lee recalled. “Now we are preparing concrete steps so that we can calm the situation quickly, if something happens.”

Richard Schröder, also a member of the German-Korean consulting committee, wishes the Koreans the slowest transition possible. In 1990, he was the chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party in the last freely elected East German parliament. “South Korea would not economically survive a sudden opening of the border with complete freedom of movement for people, money and goods as took place back then in Germany,” he said.

Immediately after the German reunification, South Koreans indulged hopes that they could soon embrace their brothers and sisters in the North. “We wanted the unification without considering the costs,” said Ms. Lee. “But now, we are thinking about the economic consequences.”

Many South Koreans fear the costs and doubt Ms. Park’s promises earlier this year, that the unification would be “a bonanza.”

Officially, the costs are the lesser problem. Since 2002, both states have agreed to work together and equitably on unification, initially as a federation is one possibility. Predictably, North Korea reacted angrily to Ms. Park’s speech, which it saw as a termination of the previous agreement. The North, however, is also studying the German example, and German political party foundations are sending teachers.

An artillery exchange in the last two weeks underlines the level of ongoing hostility between both sides.

Lars-André Richter from the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation, which has close ties to the liberal Free Democratic Party, is advising the North Korean cadre about renewable energies, urban planning and regional structural policy. “They are approaching things very pragmatically,” said Mr. Richter.

The problem of the official reunification strategy is that experts in the South envisage a collapse of Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime rather than an orderly transition. But Mr. Schröder is warning Ms. Park’s government strongly off the notion that North Korea will fall into South Korea’s lap.

“Even after a revolution, a collapse or a path of reform as in China, the powers that be will always exist,” he said. And they have to be dealt with, in the same way the German government had to deal with the former East German government.

On top of the extreme poverty, the North Koreans must also overcome enormous alienation. The North is almost completely shielded from the South, unlike in the formerly divided Germany. Family reunions are possible only for a select few, for a few days each year and under strict supervision.

The Korean civil war from 1950 to 1953 left over a million dead and deep scars. To this day, the demilitarized zone that forms the border between the two militarized states is heavily patrolled, and the North has nuclear weapons at its disposal there. An artillery exchange in the last two weeks underlines the level of ongoing hostility between both sides.

The divided Germans, by comparison, were much closer, said Ms. Lee. “When I studied in Tübingen, I was surprised that almost the same civil code was valid in both countries,” she added. “In Korea we do not have any common ground anymore.”

Korea does not want to follow Germany in tackling property rights. The German experts also advise against it, because it takes years to investigate the old rights and decide on compensation, and during that time properties lie empty. So North Korean farmers should own the lands they already plow.

Korea also does not want to copy Germany’s monetary union – without knowing what it should replace the currency with. Already, a portion of trade and the whole foreign trade in North Korea is being processed in foreign currencies such as the Chinese yuan, the U.S. dollar or the euro. South Korea wants to finance reconstruction – Germany’s cost €1 billion in the first 10 years – through the financial markets and by issuing bonds.

Professor Park Myung-kyu from the Institute for Peace and Reunification Studies at Seoul University believes that without a prior change in the North and more exchange between the two sides, reunification might be difficult. For him, it’s currently not on the agenda. “For us it is not 1989, but maybe 1980,” said the peace researcher.


 Martin Kölling is Handelsblatt’s Tokyo correspondent.  Donata Riedel is based at Handelsblatt in Berlin.  To contact the authors:,

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