In September 2015, in her speech at the 70th UN General Assembly, South Korean President Park Guen-hye cited the 25th anniversary of the Germany reunification and again made a strong pitch for the unification of the Korean peninsula. Previously in 2014, in her speech in Dresden, Germany, she had spoken about unification, and had cited the German model as a possible path for Korean unification.
The German experience has often been looked at as a model for any unification of North and South Koreas. Many believe that the Korean unification is not a question of whether or not it will happen, but of how and when it will happen.
However, the fact is that while there certainly are similarities that can be made between the divisions of Germany and Korea, these countries represent very different cases, and what worked in Germany is not likely to work for the Koreas. The primary difference is that Korea’s division was the result of a civil war along ideological lines – a war that is technically still ongoing given how the 1953 armistice that stopped the shooting did not declare peace. East and West Germany, though also divided on ideological lines, were never involved in a war as enemies.
In the early years after the establishment of its first government in 1948, South Korea launched an aggressive ‘pukch’in t’ongil’ (march north for unification) policy of unification under the leadership of the then President, Rhee Syngman, who supported the use of force and was vehemently against the existence of North Korea as a state. However, after the 1953 armistice, Seoul changed trajectories and pursued the principle of unification via peaceful reconciliation. In 1972, when West Germany launched its Ostopolitik policy of engagement with East Germany, abandoning its previous Hallstein policy, a similar process was observed in South Korea that saw it begin to engage North Korea via the Red Cross.
However, unlike West Germany, South Korea’s change of heart was less than sincere, and more likely a knee-jerk reaction to the then US President Richard Nixon’s overtures to China. Nonetheless, because of deep mistrust between the two countries – in addition to provocative actions by Pyongyang such as the 1974 attempted assassination of President Park Chung-hee that killed his wife – nothing really came of this engagement.
Furthermore, the then West German President Willy Brandt’s Ostopolitik policy led the reconciliation process that led West Germany to recognise East Germany as a state. Additionally, the 1971 agreement between the Allied powers led to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between both German states.
Conversely, Seoul did not make any direct contact with Pyongyang’s major allies, Moscow and Beijing, until near the end of the Cold War. North Korea and South Korea still do not have official diplomatic relations. Seoul, in fact, does not recognise North Korea as a sovereign state despite Pyongyang’s membership at the UN and its recognition by over 150 countries.
Although South Korean President Roh Tae-woo finally launched his Nordpolitik, constructed along the lines of West Germany’s Ostopolitik policy, in the 1980s, Seoul’s warming relationship with Beijing and Moscow in the 1990s left Pyongyang feeling isolated. Additionally, a number of major calamities, including floods and famine, as well as fear of its own collapse, created a sense of fear in the North Korean regime. In order to assuage Pyongyang’s growing discomfort, Roh signed several agreements with Pyongyang, but the growing insecurity felt by North Korea dampened all progress on that front and the process essentially remains a stalemate. Moreover, vulnerability and shifting geopolitical realities pushed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, which it perceived as a tool for protection as well as a bargaining chip.
Pyongyang’s recent testing of a hydrogen bomb suggests that it has become more dangerous and reckless in its nuclear ambitions, making reconciliation talks all the more urgent.
Till date, the 1997 Sunshine policy has been the most remarkable engagement process. Launched under the leadership of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, it emphasised the unification of the Korean peninsula through engagement, including providing economic aid to bolster the North Korean economy. However, the Sunshine policy subsequently collapsed due to the lack of reciprocity on North Korea’s part, as well as due to former US President George W Bush’s hard-line policy towards Pyongyang in the 2000s. Although President Park has emphasised the need for unification several times, there has hardly been any real movement towards that end for years.
South Korea has not taken steps West Germany had done in order to establish a conducive environment for the rapprochement that finally led to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Furthermore, Moscow played an important role in moving the two Germanys towards reunification. Beijing, on the other hand, is barely able to control North Korea, which has often been an unpredictable ally.
Seoul has to formulate its own policy for reunification. It has to go outside conventional norms of diplomacy and agree to negotiate without any preconditions. Vexing matters such as de-nuclearisation and human rights issues should be set aside for the sake of creating a conducive atmosphere for talks.
These are issues that can and should be addressed at the appropriate time; but for the moment, they represent huge stumbling blocks to negotiation. Unification will happen only if reconciliation takes place, and in an environment of mutual respect.