An Example, Not a Blueprint: Germany’s 1989 and Korean Reunification
Historical anniversaries are always a time to reflect, to celebrate and criticize times past. They usually portray a national or international commemoration of an event that had a significant impact on a community. And they give room for cries for a repetition or a condemnation of it. With the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this phenomenon is yet again evident across the globe—1989: the year in which a divided German city rang in the fall of communism; the year in which a torn country laid the grounds for reunification; the year in which freedom won over oppression. A glorious success, a leading example for the rest of the world.
Thirty years later, one can also look thousands of kilometers to the east to another country, divided into a communist and a capitalist half. The Korean peninsula tells its own story of decades of division and plans for reunification.
A Story of Decades of Division
In 1989, hopes surged that what had taken over the European continent would spill over to East Asia. North Korea was considered just another satellite state of the communist bloc. In the regime’s starting years, U.S. propaganda even proclaimed Kim Il-sung—first leader of North Korea, pioneer of communism in Korea, and progenitor of the dynasty that still rules today—was in fact Kim Sung Chu, a stooge and fugitive from South Korea posing as the leader of the “North Korean puppet regime” (according to a New York Times editorial from 1950).
But, as the Soviet bloc disassembled, the Korean peninsula did not experience a second fall of the wall or, more accurately, an opening of the demilitarized zone. North Korea did not turn out to be simply another satellite state, but rather a country with a very independent communist ideology along the lines of Juche, which in its essence stands for self-reliance. Yet, since 1989 a conviction has persisted that Korea, too, could experience freedom and unity if only it were to turn to the German example. To use approaches such as Wandel durch Annäherung (change through rapprochement), peaceful 1989-style demonstrations, and replicas of the 1990 reunification policies as a blueprint to bring South and North Korea back together as one.
"Since 1989 a conviction has persisted that Korea, too, could experience freedom and unity if only it were to turn to the German example."
The German reunification process can indeed serve as an example. Delegations from South Korea have come to Germany to inform themselves and its Ministry of Unification has drawn on the German example for topics such as currency reform, infrastructure, and the Soli (solidarity tax). What the German reunification process cannot do is serve as a blueprint. A reunification process is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The histories of German and Korean separation are far more diverse. Any prospects for Korean reunification are currently also much further away than they were for Germany in 1989.
Parallels and Differences
The parallels seem apparent. One people cut into a communist half and a capitalist half by foreign powers. Two halves of the same country that want their country to be unified under their respective ideologies. However, the differences—to many less apparent—run much deeper and are ingrained in the historical experiences of the Korean peninsula.
Beginning with the concept of citizenry, the Weimar Republic gave Germans their first experience of a democratic state and the opportunity to understand themselves as a citizenry thereof. This self-awareness in large part helped to solidify the unity of protests in 1989 and the welcoming of reunification. No such experience exists in Korea. Before their separation, Koreans had never understood themselves as citizens of one country or as one citizenry. They were one people, but not citizens. The Korean peninsula transitioned from 600 years of Joseon dynastic kingdom to colonialization under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.
"Younger generations of South Koreans are so far removed historically from the watershed of separation in 1945 that some of them do not see the point in reunification."
After 1945, the two Koreas spent years in political limbo, refuting the separation status until the Korean War of 1950–1953, in which people of the same clans or families attacked and committed war crimes against each other. After the war, both Koreas fell under dictatorial rule. North Korea remains so to this day. South Korea underwent a democratic transition in 1989 and therefore is a relatively young democracy with traditional values that run counter to democratic principles still ingrained. For example, the hojuje, a Korean family register system that requires a male head of the household with special decision-making authority, was only abolished in South Korea in 2008. Just how different the historical experiences of Germany and Korea are is clear.
An important final factor comes from the sheer duration of separation. The Korean peninsula has now been separated three decades longer than Germany was. Younger generations of South Koreans are so far removed historically from the watershed of separation in 1945 that some of them do not see the point in reunification. To them, North and South Korea are two entirely different countries and not two halves of the same nation.
Examples are important; so is learning from history. The German example can provide guidance and lessons for a potential Korean reunification. However, it will not serve as a perfectly applicable blueprint. When the time comes, Koreans must unify on their own terms, with policies fitting their own historical experiences. Anything else would be a fallacy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.