As night falls on Seoul, they all step in front of the restaurant. The Korean proprietor takes a picture of the German delegation. The mood is fairly upbeat, at least after drinking some rice wine and a few beers.
De Maizière whistles a melody from "Fidelio," an opera that he says was banned in the GDR because of this line: "Oh, what joy to breathe at ease in the free air!" Johannes Ludewig, a former head of Germany's national railway operator, Deutsche Bahn -- and a former commissioner for matters related to the states of the former East Germany -- calls out to the Korean restaurant owner: "And the next time we'll see each other in Hanoi!"
The whole group laughs.
"No, come on, you mean Pyongyang!"
"Yeah, right, Pyongyang," says Ludewig.
They all seem painfully out of place here.
A few hours later they are sitting again at the long table in the Lotte Hotel, in the Peacock Suite on the 36th floor -- ready for a new day and a new round of talks. The topic: "How can Germany and Korea work together to promote the reunification of the Korean Peninsula?" Staff from the Ministry of Unification are bustling everywhere, carrying papers and refreshments into the room.
A Wary Search for Unity
The Ministry of Unification dates back to 1969. Today it lies at the heart of South Korea's efforts to reunite with the North, and has its headquarters just a 10-minute drive from the conference hotel, right next to the Foreign Ministry. It occupies two stories in an office building and employs 500 people. But what are they actually working on?
"We draw up visions for how Korea could look after reunification. And we look after the North Korean defectors," says Deputy Unification Minister Kim.
He's 55 years old and has been working in the ministry for 27 years, in which he has served under some 15 different unification ministers. Kim has been the deputy minister for two months now. He's gradually worked his way up through the ranks. On the walls there are a few prints depicting Korean waterfalls and mountain landscapes. Kim is sitting in an armchair and speaking softly with his hands folded in front of his stomach. Above all, though, Kim is very, very cautious.
One poorly chosen word could quickly lead to inter-Korean complications. This must have been how West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher also felt in the days leading up to German reunification. Does Kim know Genscher? "Oh yes, of course! Genscher. Schäuble, too. They are famous. I would have invited them to join our commission, but they are very old now, aren't they?" Kim dips a piece of sugar into his tea. "You see, we need cooperation with Germany. How do we match up the systems? How will the citizens get along with each other? What will happen with the armies? The Germans have done a good job with this. But it could have been better. One always has to be well prepared, just in case it starts."
And when will it start?
Kim smiles. "I'm sure you will understand that I don't wish to say anything about that. But I will live to see Korean unification." But how will it proceed? Is there some kind of a plan?
"We don't want the North to collapse. Our plan calls for: first creating peace, then cooperation, then a confederation, then unity." And if the North collapses anyway? What if there is a revolution, as there was in Germany? Will South Korea then open the borders for a reunification?
"That is also a very sensitive question. Let's put it this way: Perhaps the North Koreans could remain in their homeland, yes? And we will help them."
6 Million North Koreans Threatened By Hunger
South Korea has Asia's fourth-largest economy. It's a booming country. North Korea, however, is a different story, with 6 million people threatened with hunger, according to a recent United Nations report. It's hard to imagine that the North Koreans would remain in the North. If there is a lesson to be learned from German reunification, then it's presumably that the easterners head west: rapidly, in large numbers and inexorably.
Do the North Koreans even want reunification? "We have no information about this," says Kim. "We don't know. We only have the defectors who tell us that the conditions in the country are very poor."
Roughly 3,000 North Koreans flee every year -- mostly via China, then through Vietnam or Thailand to South Korea, where the Ministry of Unification looks after them. First, the refugees are interrogated by the intelligence agency to ensure that they are not spies. Afterwards they are sent to Hanawon -- a resettlement camp outside of Seoul.
During a three-month training program, they are given an introduction to South Korean society. No one is allowed to leave the camp and the refugees are closely guarded. They relearn the country's history, for instance that the North started the Korean War. They learn how to use an ATM. They learn how to drive a car. They even learn how to speak: South Korean.
You can immediately recognize a North Korean by the way he speaks, says Sang Don Park, a ministry official responsible for matters relating to refugees. He says that North Koreans don't use any Anglicisms, but they do use communist political jargon that no one in the South is familiar with. These are presumably terms like ones that were common in East Germany that only raised quizzical looks among Germans in the West after reunification. A North Korean often understands only 60 percent of South Korean, says Sang. What's more, he adds, there is a different intonation and various dialects. Not to mention health problems: North Koreans have poor teeth due to malnourishment. Many suffer from depression and other psychological problems when they arrive in the South. North Korean refugees receive financial aid for five years after they leave the camp. There are programs that help them find work and housing -- and acquire an education.
An Ebbing Desire to Unite
South Koreans are probably afraid that they will have to re-educate and finance an entire people -- and pay for their dental care -- if unification becomes a reality.
"Many young South Koreans are put off by the costs" as well, says Deputy Minister Kim and cites the following figures: Only approximately 35 percent of the 19 to 40-year-olds see reunification as an important political issue.
The desire to unite is continuously ebbing. South Korea's older generation has long since lost touch with friends and relatives north of the border. The younger generation has never had a chance to meet. Viewed from the South, North Korea is a distant, uninhabitable planet. It's not even possible to hop across the border for a quick look, as West German schoolchildren used to do on field trips to East Berlin.
But now, fortunately, the Germans are here. Kim hopes that they will rekindle the fires of enthusiasm.