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.
'I Will Live To See Korean Unification'
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.
'You Have To Be Flexible -- Observe and Read the Signs'
One afternoon, two black Hyundai sedans pull up in front of the Ewha Womans University in Seoul. De Maizière and Schönbohm exit the vehicles like statesmen. Shortly thereafter, they are sitting in two white leather armchairs on a stage and looking into the eyes of 500 students. The event is called "Dialogue with the World's Leaders," which makes it sound as if even Barack Obama might drop by.
But the only other individual on the stage is Kim Sun-Uk, the president of the University. "We anticipate Korean reunification over the next 20 years," she says. "We need a great act of solidarity."
That's the cue for de Maizière and Schönbohm. It's their job to forge a bridge between Germany and Korea, between the past and the future. They're here to reach out to the hearts of these young people.
De Maizière begins with the fall of the Wall, mentions the first truly free Volkskammer elections, the anti-communist human rights activist Joachim Gauck, new state laws and monetary union, among other developments that were part of the road to German reunification. He also recounts how, after signing the Two-Plus-Four Treaty in September 1990 in Moscow, paving the way for German reunification, he pocketed the fountain pen -- as a souvenir. Schönbohm, who was once ordered to peacefully disband the former East German National People's Army (NVA), mentions the command issued by then-German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg on Oct. 3, 1990 and lists the NVA's arsenal of weapons. "1.4 million handguns, 7,800 armored personnel carriers, 82 warships …"
The students in the auditorium are wearing headphones as they listen to the simultaneously interpreted speeches. But many of the ideas seem to be lost on them.
'Don't Be Timid'
De Maizière and Schönbohm are sitting on the stage like two well-preserved German exhibits. "Is it true that you have the same birthday as Mikhail Gorbachev?" asks a student. De Maizière smiles briefly. "Yes, that's right. We're both Pisces. He humorously calls me young man. I call him Micha Sergeyevich." Schönbohm talks about a book that he wrote on German reunification. "It's called 'Two Armies and One Fatherland.' But it's out of print."
Some students are sleeping. Others are playing with their iPhones. "Do you have any advice for Korea?" someone asks. "Don't be timid," says de Maizière. "Don't talk about the costs. Talk about investments in the future!" De Maizière and Schönbohm look as if they could ride off at a moment's notice should a revolution erupt in the North. But they would probably ride alone.
"The South Koreans are all afraid," Schönbohm says with disappointment after the talks, as the delegation gathers for an evening reception at the German embassy. "I was recently in Cairo, where I gave a presentation. The Arabs are very interested in our experiences, what to do with the old political cadre and so on."
Perhaps North Africa is an alternative -- perhaps the Arab Spring can serve as inspiration if nothing happens in Korea.
"The Koreans plan and plan, but that's not how it works," says Horst Teltschik, Kohl's old foreign policy advisor. He has stomach problems and is only eating a little bread. "You have to be flexible -- observe and read the signs," says Teltschik. Read the signs?
A Time of Opportunity?
"Regime changes in communist dictatorships are always times of instability," he says. "This could soon present an opportunity in North Korea."
It's as if, already a few weeks ago, Teltschik foresaw everything that would happen.
Now, Kim Jong Il is dead. His successor is Kim Jong Un , the youngest son, about whom the West knows virtually nothing -- not even his age . He is presumably under 30. He wears his hair as his father did and is supported by his uncle Chang Song Taek and his aunt Kim Kyung Hee. The world is speculating whether the new Kim could be a puppet of the military or a reformer -- or neither. Even the CIA has only scant information. And Teltschik?
"Anyone who doesn't believe in the impossible is not a realist," Teltschik says on the evening of the embassy gathering in Seoul -- at a time when he couldn't possibly know that Kim Jong Il would die four weeks later.
Perhaps this means that everything will happen very suddenly and very rapidly.
In any case, the Germans are ready to rise to the occasion -- including Eppelmann. "In the spring, the South Koreans are scheduled to visit us in Berlin," he says. "Ongoing government level talks."
It's the morning before the flight back home and Eppelmann is standing on a street full of shops, looking for a present, but he has time for a political summary. He buys massage oil for his wife and, just as the reporter is getting ready to ask him if the trip, in his view, was a success, he blurts out, seemingly totally out of the blue: "I also need a knife block."
"Knife block?" says the escort from the Ministry of Unification, who is standing next to him and understands only a smattering of German. "K-n-i-f-e b-l-o-c-k?" Eppelmann repeats and enunciates even more clearly. The Korean stares at him. Eppelmann pulls a piece of paper out of his pants pocket and sketches a knife block with a few strokes. "Here, knife block? For knives … ?"
Then they walk down the street together, collectively looking for a knife block -- the last defense minister of the GDR and a young man from the Ministry for Unification of the Republic of Korea. It's actually not a bad final image for a story about bringing people together.
Eppelmann ends up buying a few Korean chopstick holders.
"Also nice," he says.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen