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German unification is a cautionary tale for Korea

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Je Yong-Sam (front L), captain of a South Korean workers' soccer team gives a Korean unification flag to Kang Jin-Hyuk, captain of a North Korean workers' soccer team before their inter-Korean friendly soccer match at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, 11 Aug 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won).

In Brief

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Less than a year later, in October 1990, West Germany and East Germany became one country. The unification of the two German states has been held as an example for North and South Korea. In the words of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, ‘the experience of Germany’s unification gives hope for unification, and at the same time shows us the path that we need to follow’.


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It seems logical for Koreans to draw inspiration and lessons from the German example. The country is in good shape. Three out of four Germans think that the unification was a success, and more than half believe that it benefitted them personally. Hardly anyone misses East Germany.

Yet one of the most important lessons from the German experience receives scant attention in conversations regarding Korean unification. Unification brought the two German states together on paper and in political and economic terms. But it failed to bring them together through shared experiences and identities. Today, the consequences of this are impossible to ignore.

About half of those living in Germany’s east consider themselves second-class citizens. Two out of three are unhappy with the state of German democracy. Even the generation born into a unified Germany share these attitudes. This translates into politics: populist and anti-establishment parties have been more successful in the east than in the west. At this year’s regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, the openly extremist-right Alternative for Germany party received a quarter of the votes.

Among the roots of these attitudes are the experiences of Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In East Germany, unification brought large-scale changes. The political and economic structures of West Germany were extended to the East: liberal democracy replaced authoritarian governance and free-market capitalism replaced the planned economy. Many of these reforms were necessary and welcome. But they remade the political, economic and social foundations of a society.

For many, the immediate consequences were negative. In the years after unification, several million workers in Germany’s east lost their jobs. The birth rate dropped to one of the world’s lowest. Many saw better chances elsewhere and more than one million people moved west. But what statistics and numbers cannot express and what has received less attention is the everyday effects these structural reforms wrought on the lives people had lived for decades.

A case in point is the fate of East Germany’s publicly owned enterprises that employed the vast majority of the country’s workers. These enterprises were more than places of employment. In line with the idea of a socialist worker’s society, they were centres of social and cultural life. Thousands were privatised, sold to investors or shut down in the unification process. This remade not only corporate structures, but the centrepieces of many lives.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas labelled this an ‘experience of structural violence’. It threw millions of lives off track and called into question many people’s basic certainties. And this experience hit hard. Many of the unification reforms took place in the span of months. They were driven by politicians and technocrats from West Germany in a top-down fashion and without the meaningful participation of citizens. Life in West Germany, meanwhile, remained largely the same.

The unification of the two states didn’t result in a unifying experience. In the country’s west, there continues to be little interest in the experience of East Germans: in what was lost, how it felt and how it feels today. Many continue to look at the east as a backwater and at unification as an event from decades ago. This experience of unification and how it was never acknowledged and appreciated by West Germans continues to echo in Germany’s east. For all the good that the unification brought, it also left behind disappointments, resentment over perceived paternalism and injustice and feelings of loss and exclusion. And in these attitudes, as well as the lack of understanding and communication around them, Germans continue to be separated.

Maybe this outcome was unavoidable if Germany did not want to miss the historic opportunity to unify. But Koreans should be sceptical of seeing German unification as a model. Given the even starker differences in life experiences between Koreans in the north and south, the problem of how to create a truly unifying unification and shared identity seems even more pressing.

Unification should not be imagined only as a political and economic project. It should also be imagined as the unification of two peoples and as a project of experiences, emotions and identities. It should not be imagined as an event, but as a process that takes decades. And it should be imagined not only with an eye to what German unification was, but also what was missing.

German unification took place in a hasty, brute and top-down manner. The public was hardly involved in determining its speed and course. A slower process with more public deliberation and participation would not have prevented all failures and disappointments. But it might have given Germans a sense of being subjects, not just objects of unification.

A unification of North and South Korea could resolve one of the world’s longest running and most dangerous international conflicts. But the unification of West Germany and East Germany should be seen not only as an inspiring tale, but also as a cautionary one.

Max Nurnus is a Lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University.

2 responses to “German unification is a cautionary tale for Korea”

  1. Thanks for an informative analysis. I concur that the German experience since 1989 strongly suggests that reunification between two parts of what used to be one country is far more complex and potentially problematic than many think it would be. It is prudent to note that it should be as much a cautionary tale as anything.

    I feel it is important to add the following: it seems to me that the prospects for reunification between the DPRK and the ROK are nowhere near likely at this time. The North does not appear to be anywhere near collapse. Unless Kim and his cohorts were dramatically removed from power by an internal coup of some kind there is no way they will readily give up their positions in the North. He is far too invested in pursuing the so called nuclear option to protect what he sees as his security needs to seriously consider reunification. Neither would China, and to a lesser extent Russia, be happy with the loss of the North as a buffer between it and the USA military forces stationed in the South.

    Bottom line: this makes for interesting reading but I suggest that it is also pretty much a theoretical exercise.

  2. These articles focusing on “German lessons for Korean unification” were outdated a decade ago. Today they are irrelevant, as the MOU and MOFA have long recognised. In a nutshell, the German and Korean situations are/were so different that it doesn’t make sense to compare them. Please spare us most of these articles in the future.

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