If you want to know about the weather forecast for South Korea few people would make a call to the other side of the world, but in the case of a political forecast for the Korean peninsula, however, this idea isn’t quite so strange.
That is why NK News carried out several interviews with German members of the Korean-German Reunification Consultation Committee initiative, which exchanges ideas on a possible Korean reunification.
The Committee started in 2011 with general meetings, but quickly focused on specific topics of economics, security or defense under Park Geun-hye’s administration.
“What was initially thought very generally and abstractly, now has broken down into specific politics and actions,” Rainer Eppelmann, former Defense Minister of the GDR, tells NK News.
Despite this new approach, Dr. Richard Schroeder – former chairman of the Social Democratic (SPD) parliamentary group in the last East German (GDR) parliament – has the impression that the Lee administration was more interested in “real encounters and real steps”, while the current administration is more driven by domestic political motives.
Dr. Schroeder says that instead of developing realistic scenarios of how to reach unification, South Korea usually takes a post-unification perspective – “What do we do when we take over North Korea?” – and that scenarios other than a South Korean-led unification by absorption are rarely discussed.
The set-up of the German-Korean meetings reflects the omnipresent hope that the German reunification could work as a blueprint for Korea. For Dr. Schroeder, this comparison is not realistic.
“They cannot copy German reunification, because the initial situation in 1989 in the divided Germany and in 2013 in the divided Korea are so tremendously different,” he says.
While in the reunited Germany, the annual transfer of EUR50 billion was shouldered by three-quarters of the population, the estimated EUR182 billion would need to be carried by only two-thirds of a united Korea.
Instead of developing realistic scenarios of how to reach unification, South Korea usually takes a post-unification perspective
The chances that an economic interdependency could force the regime to adapt to requirements of the outside world seem negligible. Apart from China, North Korea is not known to maintain significant trade with other countries.
This massive economic disparity is accompanied by the legacy of the Korean War, whose impact in terms of distrust and hostility between the two Koreas still echoes today, not least in the National Security Act of 1948, which remains in force.
In contrast to the two Germanys, where inter-state trade, postal services, and even personal encounters never seriously ceased, the two Koreas are isolated from each other, a situation that increases the alienation of what was once one people.
“North Koreans feel like ‘deserted enemies’ when they come to South Korea,” Dr. Schroeder says.
What the isolation has not managed to do, however, is to curb the interest and desire for a reunification.
“The people […] I talk to are interested and exerted about reunification, it seems to be an important issue in society”, assesses Rainer Eppelmann.
THE GEOPOLITICS AT PLAY
It is no secret that the German reunification was facilitated through the consensus of the four global powers at the time. Through their administrative support, reunification, a highly complex process with few recent precedents, was completed relatively quickly.
Geopolitical dynamics helped. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, its German protégé was caught in a political wave that was further fueled by a strong civil society movement.
All of this – the solid backing of global superpowers, the chances of a political chain reaction and a strong civil society – is missing in the case of the two Koreas.
“I believe the difficult foreign political framework prohibits debating concrete reunification scenarios,” former Ministry President of Saxony-Anhalt Christoph Bergner says.
Of course, there is China and the U.S., but their influence seems limited to security (U.S.) or economy (China), with little political influence.
In the case of Germany, Rainer Eppelmann observes, “both states [the U.S. and the USSR] had a political interest in solving the ‘German question’ to improve their mutual relationship”.
Fast forward to today: do China and the United States have a mutual interest in solving the problem of the Korean Peninsula? “If the question is answered with ‘yes’, there is hope.”
Unlike North Korea, South Korea, as witnessed during “Choi Soon-il gate,” has a strong civil society, but even an optimistic dreamer would not dare to believe that South Korean protesters could bring Pyongyang and Seoul back to the negotiation table.
“I believe the difficult foreign political framework prohibits debating concrete reunification scenarios”
Dr. Schroeder is “surprised [that] North Korea plays the role of a loner,” but rejects the idea that this isolation and the corresponding worsening economic situation might eventually force the Kim regime to negotiations.
“No dictatorship so far broke down because of economic factors they just put on their people,” he says. “[Look at] Romania, like the famines in North Korea.”
It is this mixture – the lack of an action plan, the unreliability of North Korea, the immense inter-Korean financial and socio-cultural gap and the current global political arena – that leads to Dr. Schroeder’s pessimistic prognosis for a potential reunification. He currently only sees three scenarios for reunification:
- A step-by-step liberalization process in North Korea led by reform politicians, which eventually paves the way for inter-Korean talks
- A “palace revolution”: High-ranked communist politicians overthrow the Kim regime and take power
- People’s revolution: bottom-up revolution carried by civil society which overthrows the regime or leads to a change of course of the regime.
When it comes to the question of handling the reunification process, the delegation is clear that it must be “Stufenprozess” (step-by-step process) instead of a “Blitzvereinigung” (sudden reunification).
“The sudden opening of borders […] in Germany led to a situation out of control,” he says.
In those negotiations, next to obvious economic or political issues, very sensitive questions will have to be addressed.
Among them is the question of amnesty. North Korean politicians won’t be open negotiations if they face the prospect of being imprisoned after unification happens. Germany gave East Germans a fair chance of life in a democracy and employed the majority in the public service: approximately 85% of East German teachers continued to teach in the new united Federal Republic of Germany.
“The initial steps have to come from North Korea,” says Dr. Schroeder, otherwise all efforts remain fruitless.
The delegation acknowledges the efforts undertaken under President Park’s Trustpolitik, but regards the lack of response from North Korea as the major obstacle to a reunited Korea. Only once both Koreas engage in steady and peaceful dialogue can Korea take lessons from Germany.
Until this happens, regardless of which side is blamed, Korea Times journalist Kang Seung-woo says: “The only notable achievement between the two Koreas under the Park administration is the reunions of separated families in February last year.”
North Korean politicians won’t open negotiations when facing the prospect of being imprisoned after unification happens
So what about the German weather forecast, Rainer Eppelmann? “I observe a positive development, the topics become more specific, the tasks more differentiated.”
And is South Korea sufficiently prepared if reunification came soon?
Unfair question, he thinks: “Until today questions on the transformation process […] that cannot be answered pop up in Germany: For societal tasks of this magnitude, it is impossible to be fully prepared!”
Essentially the question of whether the two countries will reunite cannot be answered by politicians, but by the people, he adds: “Not the least, the majority of people in both countries needs to express that they want reunification.”