Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification
The border between North and South Korea is the last battlefield of the Cold War. Currently, a delegate of veteran German politicians -- from the former east and west -- are advising the government in Seoul on how the country might reunify if the opportunity arises in the future. Some see a door opening for change following Kim Jong Il's death.
A few weeks before North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack during a train journey, Lothar de Maizière, the last prime minister of the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), boarded a Lufthansa flight bound for South Korea to intervene once again in world history. De Maizière was accompanied by Rainer Eppelmann, the last defense minister of the GDR.
Today de Maizière is 71 years old and has put on a few pounds since the tumultuous days in late 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Eppelmann, 68, was sporting the kind of peaked cap that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and German retirees like to wear. De Maizière and Eppelmann looked a bit like they could get lost on the streets of Seoul. But they weren't traveling there alone.
They were part of a 20-member delegation led by Christoph Bergner, the federal commissioner responsible for issues relating to the eastern states and ethnic Germans who have returned to Germany from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Why does one send an aircraft loaded with German former revolutionaries and unification experts to a place like South Korea? The short answer: so history will repeat itself. The somewhat longer answer: It was an idea conceived by Kim Chun Sig, South Korea's deputy unification minister. Korea has been divided since the end of World War II. The communist North has a nuclear weapons program and is supported by Russia and China. The capitalist South is supported by the United States. Korea is the last battlefield of the Cold War, a country that was split in two during the war of ideologies.
Over 60 years after the country was divided, South Koreans would like to see all this change. They have a grand dream of reuniting the two Koreas. Over one year ago, an agreement was reached with the German government to create a commission of experts with a somewhat unwieldy name: the Korean-German Consultation Committee on Reunification. Germany has provided its most experienced specialists from the eastern and western parts of the country, whose job is to explain how one successfully reunites a people. "No country understands our desire to reunite as well as Germany," says Kim.
The deputy unification minister greets the exhausted members of the German delegation at Seoul's luxurious Lotte Hotel. They have been traveling for 12 hours, via Mongolia and China, across a myriad of time zones. Now, they are all attending a welcome dinner in the Garnet Suite on the 37th floor. They will remain in the city for three days as they work on plans for Korea's future. But first they gaze out the huge glass windows at the city far below. Seoul is sparkling in the night. Viewed from above, it looks slightly mind-boggling and pretentious -- like an Asian Manhattan.
'The Koreans Have To Make Their Own Decisions'
The delegation also includes Horst Teltschik, 71, a foreign policy advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl; Richard Schröder, 68, former parliamentary floor leader for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Volkskammer (parliament) of the GDR; retired German armed forces Lieutenant General and former interior minister of the state of Brandenburg Jörg Schönbohm, 74, and various academics, former ministers and a representative from the agency that manages the archives of former East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi.
"We have to see what can be achieved," says de Maizière, as he dabs his mouth with a napkin after the six-course dinner. "I can only tell people what happened back in Germany. The Koreans have to make their own decisions." Does he actually know anyone in the South Korean delegation? De Maizière glances around the room and looks into unfamiliar South Korean faces. "No," he says.
The next day, the first working session between the South Koreans and the Germans is held in the Peacock Suite on the 36th floor. The topic of discussion: "German reunification and the process of German unity: preconditions, results and problems." The delegates sit across from each other at a long table, 14 Germans and 14 South Koreans. Perhaps they are thinking that this will one day be an historic image -- like the photos of the round table talks in East Berlin between the communists and the opposition, or when then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met in the Caucasus in July 1990. Kohl and Gorbachev, one wearing a cardigan the other a knit pullover, discussed the details of German unification as they took a summer stroll along a riverbank.
North Korea Remains an Enigma
The odd thing, though, is that no one has ever had the impression that Korean reunification could be just around the corner -- neither over the short or the medium term. Have there been signs of this recently? Glasnost in Pyongyang? There have not been any such signs, neither before nor after the death of Kim Jong Il, who always looked like a dictator invented by Hollywood. North Korea remains an enigma. There's no other country in the world about which so little is known. Even the South Koreans remain largely in the dark about their neighbor to the north.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice. A peace treaty was never signed. With some 1.2 million soldiers, North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world. It was only a little over a year ago, in November 2010, that North Korea fired artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Two soldiers and two civilians were killed. The US dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and a number of South Korean parliamentarians called for retaliatory air strikes. The mood between the North and the South is still comparable to the tensions that reigned between the Soviet Union and the US during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The Soviet Union has long since ceased to exist, the US has an African-American president and Seoul is not West Berlin, the former frontline city of the Cold War. But the local geography is marked by similarly short distances. It takes just an hour to reach the North Korean border. In just three hours, a traveler would be in Pyongyang. Back in West Berlin it was possible to watch East German TV, but in Seoul and throughout South Korea it's impossible to receive a single North Korean television program. Ministry of Unification officials say that every broadcast that comes from the North is blocked by South Korean state agencies out of fear of propaganda.
There are no postal deliveries between the North and the South. Direct telephone connections do not exist either. Travel between the two Koreas is as follows: In 2010 approximately 130,000 South Koreans visited the North -- while only 132 North Koreans made official visits to South Korea. In Germany they often talked about the Iron Curtain that divided the country. Compared to the situation in Korea, it was just a picket fence.
'I Didn't Believe Germany Unity Would Come, Either'
So what can be done about the situation? Is reunification even realistic?
That evening de Maizière is sitting in a nondescript restaurant in downtown Seoul. "I didn't believe that German unity would ever come, either -- and then it suddenly happened," he says. This is already de Maizière's fifth trip to South Korea since German reunification. He has spoken to students, academics and government officials. "This is now my fourth or fifth Korean unification minister. They appoint new ones all the time. I can't remember all their names," says de Maizière. "Or their faces," adds Schönbohm.
"They always have the same questions," says de Maizière. "It was the same story today. The Koreans basically don't want unity to cost too much, and I tell them it will cost much more than you can imagine." Eppelmann nods in agreement. "I've realized that the South Koreans are trying to figure out a way for the North Koreans to remain in the North after unification," says Eppelmann. "The South Koreans were talking about border controls. I'll be damned! They seriously intend to close the border after the wall has fallen!"
Eppelmann looks as if he has been personally insulted. As a former East German, he naturally tends to feel more of a sense of kinship with the North Koreans. De Maizière stares at his beer. Schönbohm pokes around in his bowl of kimchi. "The commission is scheduled to meet over the next five years," says de Maizière, "I asked the South Koreans, though: 'Do you really want to wait so long with your reunification?'"
Everything went incredibly fast in the Eastern Bloc. The GDR and its allied communist states disappeared within just one year. One month later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Back then, as a civil rights activist from East Berlin, it was possible to change the whole world. But everyone is still racking their brains about what to do with Korea.
"I asked them: 'Do you know what the North Koreans want? What they're yearning for?' But the South Koreans don't know," says de Maizière. "They say: 'It's up to us in the South to solve the unity problem. We have the money.' Well, it was no different with us. That was, of course, the German problem. Afterwards there can be a very pronounced feeling of colonization." Eppelmann nods. Schönbohm remains silent. "Historical ruptures always leave behind a lost generation," says de Maizière. "That's tragic, but history has never been a just affair." Perhaps de Maizière is talking about Korea -- or about himself. He's a sensitive, intelligent man, and it's easy to imagine how he suffered from the fact that he was actually no longer needed after Oct. 3, 1990 -- the day when Germany was officially united.
There was no room for anyone next to Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of German unity. It's very possible that this has also motivated the Germans to come here -- especially those from eastern Germany. They want to win back their place in history. South Korea is still soft and malleable, and it has a challenge to meet. The Koreans address de Maizière with "Excellence" and "Prime Minister," as if he were still in office. As for Eppelmann, one has the distinct impression that his beard has grown since his arrival -- and has again reached civil-rights-activist proportions.
- Part 1: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification
- Part 2: 'I Will Live To See Korean Unification'
- Part 3: 'You Have To Be Flexible -- Observe and Read the Signs'
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