• 6·15 남북정상회담
  • 년도별 기념식 자료
  • 6·15 남북정상회담

    년도별 기념식 자료

    14주년 6·15 남북정상회담 14주년 - (Session 3) Rudiger Frank


    Rudiger Frank 

    Park Geun-hye's Dresden Speech and North Korea : A German Perspective


    ROK President Park Geun-hye travelled to Germany in spring 2014 and gave a speech in Dresden on March 28, saying: “I believe that just as the Miracle on the Rhine was followed by the Miracle on the Han, so too, will unification in Germany be reenacted on the Korean Peninsula.”

    This quote, like many speeches by Korean and German politicians before, seems to imply a close similarity between the German and the Korean unification case, and between West Germany and South Korea. In this essay, I will in the first part critically discuss the validity of that very argument. I am very skeptical. There is indeed a certain potential for lessons, but the comparison also carries a huge risk of misinterpretations. Given the relevance and potential impact of unification on Korea and the region, a policy based on incorrect analogies would be enormously dangerous. A thorough discussion of comparability is thus imperative.

    In the second part, Ioffer an interpretation of the Dresden speech from an East German perspective, including a speculation about the subtle signals that North Koreans might have interpreted into it.  Again, I am afraid I have more critical than positive things to say. However, I suggest using this occasion productively for an open discussion of the Korean unification philosophy and ways to address North Korean concerns in order to reduce resistance and foster cooperation. Trust building is not a bad strategic concept if it is implemented well.

    I. Comparing Germany and Korea

    Data availability and political bias

    One wonders why 25 years after German unification Koreans are still searching for lessons from this case. Obviously, the search has not been successful. But why is that so?

    For the sake of fairness, we should acknowledge that a solid analysis of such a complex event as the unification of two different systems not only takes time to be conducted, but also requires data that have not been available instantly.  In addition, an emotionally loaded political atmosphere as it was prevalent during the first decade after 1990 is not conducive to a sober analysis. The political-ideological environment has changed ever since, slowly but steadily. New studies on unification are more balanced, less biased, and more geared towards an objective understanding of events, their causes, and their effects, rather than propagating or attacking a particular position or policy.

    Nevertheless, it would be naive to assume that all subjectivity has vanished from the German unification debate. It will remain in place as long as individuals are directly affected by unification and its consequences, and as long as there are political forces that feel compelled to convert these effects into political capital. My own rough estimate based on an average German life expectancy of about 80 years is that it will take another 50 years, if not more, before such individual bias will be gone.

    Questionable comparability: Korea is not Germany

    What I regard as the most important reason for doubts about the relevance of German lessons for Korea is the weak starting basis of that comparison.  Explicitly or implicitly, comparative studies imply that divided Germany is more or less similar to divided Korea; that former West Germany is more or less similar to South Korea; and that former East Germany is more or less similar to North Korea. None of these assumptions will pass serious scrutiny.

    Yes, Germany has been divided after 1945 like Korea. But that’s about it. Germany’s division was a result of World War 2 and the fact that Hitler and his regime of aggressors and mass murderers lost. Many Germans, although not all, have accepted division as a kind of national punishment. Korea, on the other hand, was a Japanese colony and thus a victim of the Axis. The day of Japan’s capitulation on August 15th 1945 has been celebrated as victory day. The division of Korea is seen as a major historical injustice in both of its parts and forms the foundation of a strong skepticism against so-called great powers.

    There are major differences with a view to international law. Until 1990, Germany had a so-called Four-Power-Status. The Allied Control Council, a military occupation control body, consisted of the Soviet Union, the USA, Great Britain and France. It was only dissolved with the conclusion of the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”, signed on 12 September 1990, and ratified on 15 March 1991.  Only on that day did the military occupation formally end, and Germany regained its full sovereignty. Accordingly, Germany had large contingents of foreign troops on its territory; on both sides a few hundred thousand including heavy equipment.

    In Korea, however, the Soviet Union and the United States withdrew their troops towards the end of the 1940s. The Americans came back in the course of the Korean War, but under very different legal circumstances. Today, there are about 25,000 American troops in South Korea – as allies, not as an occupation force. There are no foreign troops in North Korea. Korea is fully sovereign; outside parties like the UN would only have to be consulted regarding a peace treaty to end the Korean War.

    While German unification has thus been impossible without considering legal claims by third parties, these play no role in the Korean case. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl needed green light from London, Paris, Washington and Moscow to realize his unification plans. Koreans would certainly not mind receiving support for their unification efforts from China, the USA, Russia and Japan, but they have no legal obligation to consult them. This is important as the legal situation heavily impacted Germany’s options and the speed and design of the unification process.

    There are major differences between Germany and Korea in the political and ideological fields, too. Germany had been re-founded in 1871 after centuries of an at best informal existence in the form of various smaller kingdoms. On the other hand, Germany in 1945 had a long tradition of enlightenment and democracy. In particular the devastating experience of World War 1, the failure of the Weimar Republic, the inability to prevent the rise of the Nazis and the guilt associated to World War 2 laid the foundation for the self-perception of the political class in East and West Germany.

    In Korea, the situation has been reverse. The unity of the country had existed for centuries. However, in 1945 there was little in terms of a democratic or pluralistic tradition. A modern national consciousness only emerged with the advance of the Japanese in the late 19th century, but more in the sense of a defensive nationalism rather than in the active, outward-oriented way that prevailed in Germany.   After colonization, an independence movement developed that culminated in the uprising of 1 March 1919. The fight against the colonial power Japan shaped the self-perception of Korea’s political elite.

    As a consequence, nationalism was and to a large degree still is not acceptable as a unification ideology in Germany. Even during the World Football Championship in 2006 commentators were not sure how to react to the suddenly emerging sea of German national flags in public spaces, on cars etc.  In Korea, on the other hand, nationalism is at the core of the unification debate. This has far-reaching implications, for example concerning the readiness to make sacrifices in the interest of the Nation. Koreans, I would argue, will associate a higher value to the idealistic value of unification that Germans. It will be possible to openly argue that a unified Korea will better be able to defend its interests against its neighbors. Such a line of debate would have been unthinkable in the German case. The nationalist gains will necessitate less proof of unification’s purely material benefits. The resulting pressure on the government will thus be reduced, which will affect the costs of unification.

    The official position on unification, too, differs substantially between Germany in 1989 and Korea in 2014. The German Democratic Republic had early on dropped the desire for unification and even stopped singing the text of its national anthem for that reason. The refrain’s line “Let’s serve you to the very best, Germany our unified fatherland” contradicted the official East German line after 1961 that emphasized the existence of two separate states on German territory. The Federal Republic of Germany had not been ready to go that far. However, by the end of the 1980s most politicians had concluded that division had to be accepted as a reality. Today, the embarrassing truth that West Germany was close to officially accepting East Germany as a sovereign state is usually brushed under the carpet. When Erich Honecker visited Bonn on 7 September 1987, he walked over the red carpet, passed by a guard of honor and listened to the GDR’s national anthem and its national flag. The Christian Democrats considered a change in their party statutes to clear the way for an official recognition of the GDR. Wolfgang Schäuble, Chancellery Minister of the West German government, said in a public speech on 25 February 1989, less than nine months before the opening of the Berlin Wall: “Despite all its difficulties, the GDR regime does not face a collapse... Under the given conditions and for the foreseeable future, a solution of the German question is thus not in sight.”

    The opportunity for unification occurred to Germans more or less unexpectedly and found them largely unprepared, which, paradoxically, in the end might actually have been helpful. A process as fast as it unfolded would have been much more difficult had there been established and controversial unification concepts of both sides to overcome.

    Again, the Korean situation is completely different. In both Koreas, unification is an irrevocable credo, even though enthusiasm for unification in the South is declining mainly because of fears over restrictively high costs of such a process. A recent survey indicates that the number of supporters of a unification has dropped from 63.8% in 2007 to 54.8% in 2013. We donot have similar surveys for North Korea, but unification is frequently mentioned in the media, on propaganda posters, and as part of performances such as Arirang.

    The geopolitical situation of Germany and Korea differs as well. Germany is in the middle of a very dynamic continent. In 1989/1990, the dividing line between two antagonistic camps ran right across Germany. What happened in Germany had immediate and direct implications for global security. While something similar could have been said about Korea at that time, meanwhile the peninsula at the periphery of the Asian continent is much less globally relevant. It has only three neighboring countries (China, Japan, and Russia), of which only the former two have a serious interest in Korea. The global relevance of a Korean unification will thus not reach the German example, unless the peninsula becomes the battleground for the bilateral conflict between the old hegemonic power USA and the newly emerging giant China. The latter is possible, but not inevitable.

    If we leave geopolitics and enter the regional dimension, we find that there were major active concerns regarding a German unification among France, Great Britain, Poland and others. Based on their historical experience and ambitions, they assumed that Germany could again develop into an existential threat. This is not to say that Korea’s neighbors do not have reservations against a unified Korea, not least because of a number of territorial disputes, out of fear that an enlarged South Korea would be an even fiercer economic competitor, or for strategic reasons that will be discussed below. However, it would be hard to argue that East Asian countries expect a Korean imperial claim to power in the region or that they could present a historical foundation to such allegations. Korea will thus have to expect less of a head wind from this direction, and hence face a much weaker necessity to address such concerns in the process of its unification.

    Helmut Kohl’s major, although not always properly honored diplomatic achievement was precisely the alleviation of the fears of Germany’s neighbors. This is not to say that China and Japan will look the other way; but Korea’s unification will to a much higher degree than Germany’s be a national affair.

    Concerning the way how the two Korea’s treat each other, we find even more significant differences with Germany. We Germans were fortunate enough not to face the need to overcome the legacy of a fraternal war. This resulted in a certain moderation in bilateral relations. The kind of fierce, extremely abusive verbal fighting as it often occurs between the two Koreas has never happened in Germany. In the 1980s, despite strong reservations on both sides, there was no mutual hatred between East and West Germany. In Korea, this is still very much the case. Shooting practice using the faces of the respective leaders as a target have occurred on both sides until very recently. North Korea has shown a particularly questionable creativity in inventing slander against the South Korean president. When after a row of particularly disgusting insults against the South Korean and the US presidents in May 2014, the South Korean Minister of Defense opined that North Korea “must disappear soon”, this was instantly followed by a threat from Pyongyang to “wipe out every last person” in the South Korean government. To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened in Germany, at least not with this level of official publicity.

    The inner-German border has witnessed a number of tragic cases of shootings and killings. But even these crimes pale in comparison with the exchange of gunfire, artillery shelling, armed infiltration and others that have taken place between the two Koreas. During the process of unification, the Germans did not have to deal with cases like the 1984 Rangoon bombing or the 1987 KAL 858 downing, with the 2010 Ch’ŏnan case or the Yŏnp’yŏng-do shelling. The two Koreas will face a much harder task of dealing with their immediate past than Germany.

    Koreans know very little about each other. Unlike in divided Germany, there are only sporadic, superficial contacts. The few organized family reunions quickly fade when compared with the intense exchange of letters, phone calls and personal visits between West and East Germany. My family, like hundreds of thousands others, regularly received parcels with all kinds of gifts from our Western relatives. Occasionally, a sister or a cousin from West Germany visited us by train or with their own car. Since 1979, the year of her 60th birthday when she retired and officially counted as a pensioner, my grandmother visited her three sisters on the other side several times a year. In February 1988, even my then 44 year old mother was given permission to attend her aunt’s birthday in West Germany. In 1987, there were 1.3 million (!) visits of East Germans to West Germany and West Berlin.  The number of South Koreans who have traveled to North Korea is ridiculously low in comparison, not to mention Northerners who legally travelled to the South.

    Korea has no city like Berlin, where the national division in all its absurdity was visible to millions of people every day. Coming from Leipzig, I often asked myself why on earth somebody would try to defect in Berlin, where he had to cross the most heavily guarded part of the inner-German border.  Were there no easier options? Then, in the mid-1980s, I looked out of the train window around the elevated tracks of OberschöneweideStation in East Berlin and for the first time saw the Wall, and behind it, only a stone’s throw away, West Berlin. I suddenly understood: seeing this, on a daily basis, was painful. It was a completely different thing to actually see and feel division rather than just reading about it. For most people, this was hard to live with. For some, it was too hard.

    The demilitarized zone in Korea, however, is a four kilometer wide green belt in a sparsely populated area. There are various look-outs on South Korean territory, where visitors can catch a blurred view of a North Korean village with the help of strong binoculars. Nothing comparable exists in the North, except for a military post at the ferro-concrete wall, which to my knowledge is mainly open to foreign tourists. I have been there four times. All one can see are military installations, forests, and a wall that stretches from West to East across the peninsula to prevent a tank attack by North Korea. The only chance for Koreans to have a look at the other side is P’anmunjŏm, but that is an artificial world of barracks and pavilions – nothing compared to Berlin which was real, alive, loud, palpable and agonizing.

    Nothing can substitute for immediate experience, but the media, too, can increase the desire for unification. Regarding their role and influence, the German and the Korean case differ again. The presence of West German media in East Germany was nothing less but massive. Three out of five TV-channels that our household received were West German. That was legal, by the way; only for certain groups like the military, consuming Western media was prohibited. It was only with the start of my military service in 1987 that I began listening to East German radio, since there were no legal alternatives. On a side note, this quite unexpectedly introduced me to a remarkably subversive independent music scene that was watched carefully, but nevertheless permitted by the state authorities.

    In North Korea, it is technically difficult and not permitted to tune in Southern stations. In the last decade, DVDs and USB sticks have been able to penetrate the border via China, but they usually carry soap operas. These certainly have a subversive effect but do not substitute for a regular consumption of the other side’s news and documentaries as it was common in East Germany. I never heard about a punk rock band in North Korea. There is no equivalent to the freedom the churches enjoyed in East Germany, with their prayers for peace, environmental awareness campaigns, independent art projects and much more. North Korean artists can only dream about the level of freedom, including travel to “the other side”, which many artists of East Germany enjoyed despite the constant supervision by the Ministry of State Security.

    A regular and intense exchange, as it was common in Germany, did and does not take place in the case of the two Koreas. The awareness of commonality and knowledge about each other are much more diffuse in Korea, while East Germans thanks to commercials, hard-currency stores, neighbors or visitors knew very well about all the things they were lacking. Thanks to the transit agreement, millions of East German owners of outdated Trabant cars (for which they hard to wait 15 years and pay the equivalent of two year’s pay) could see shiny and modern West German cars pass by. The resulting frustration over material inferiority was not only limited to cars: Western superiority was visible on a daily basis in the fields of consumer electronics, rock and pop music, fashion, exotic fruit and travel to dream destinations. All this should not be taken lightly. For East Germans, West Germany was a “yardstick society” : they evaluated their own life in comparison with what they believed to know about life in West Germany. South Korea, however, is despite a few trends in that direction still far away from playing that same role for North Korea.

    We should not forget to mention that people in the South, too, know very little about life on the other side. The number of defectors or “new settlers” is relatively small and subject to self-selection. While in the 40 years between 1949 and 1989, about 3.5 million East Germans left their country for the West, the number of North Koreans moving to South Korea stood at only 26,122 in the 60 years between 1953 and 2013.

    It is mostly poor people from the Northeastern region of North Korea that manage to leave the country and make it to the South. This small, not representative group usually tries to conceal its Northern origin out a not unsubstantiated fear of discrimination in the tough competitive environment of modern South Korean society. Therefore, if we hear something about daily life in North Korea, the stories are usually about hunger and oppression. This is most likely true, but it is not the full picture. Such a biased image leads to illusionsabout the state of mind of North Koreans and, as a consequence, to an incomplete preparation of South Korea’s society for unification.

    The list of differences does not end here. A look at the main allies of East Germany and North Korea reveals more dissimilarities. East Germany was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Around 1989, Moscow was in deep economic and political trouble. It was weak and declining, more of a burden than a supporter. Former East German leaders openly accuse Mikhail Gorbachev of having sold East Germany to Helmut Kohl in a mix of political naivety and hope for economic support.  North Korea’s main ally is China. Even though the actual strength of that alliance is debatable, China is an economically and politically strong and advancing country. It has a vibrant economy and strong interests in the region; its readiness to “sell” North Korea to the US or South Korea is very weak, to say the least. China is economically capable and politically willing to support North Korea in its development and in the course of a possible unification. This poses a very different challenge to South Korea compared to the one that West Germany had to deal with.

    If we assume that unification implies the harmonization of the levels of development of the two sides, we should look at the gap in developmental levels. It is widely accepted in South Korea that the gap between East Germany and West Germany was much smaller than that between North Korea and South Korea. This leads to the conclusion that the costs of unification, defined as the spending needed to bridge that gap, will be higher in Korea than in Germany. But a difference in some key indicators like GDP or exports does not necessarily provide a good estimate of unification costs.

    Consider this: In the German case, the social security system has been very strong in the West, and its immediate transfer to the East after unification was a legal and political necessity. About 60 to 65% of all spending on Germany unification in the years from 1990 to 2014 went into social policies, of which the pensions system took the lion’s share.  In 2012, about 30 percent (!) of the German national budget went into pensions.  How does that compare to Korea? Shon and Palley point out that the South Korean state’s spending on pensions is very low, with merely 0.26 percent of the 2014 national budget allocated for services and income for the elderly. In other words, as long as spending on social policies is so low in South Korea, they will contribute very little to the costs of unification, because North Koreans will hardly expect to receive more than their South Korean brethren. Combined with the fact that so far, no exaggerated expectations about gains from unification have been created in the North, the above leads me to assume that the actual gap to bridge – a major factor contributing to the costs of unification – might actually be much smaller than currently feared.

    However, trouble is lurking in other areas. A problem that Germans did not have to overcome was the digital divide, since the rapid development and then convergence of computers and telecommunication took place only after unification. Word processing, presentations, email, internet, e-commerce, social networks – Germans acquired all the related skills together, already part of a unified country. But despite the existence of mobile phones and tablet computers , compared to their South Korean counterparts many North Koreans still have to be considered as heavily uninformed about the use of all the options of the latest technologies. Should that remain unchanged until unification, the majority of North Koreans will enter competition with their fellow countrymen with a deficit that can fairly be compared with analphabetism.

    North and South, East and West

    A comparison of the allegedly similar parts of Germany and Korea reveals more differences than congruencies as well.

    There are a few superficial parallels between West Germany and South Korea. Both are leading economies, but that is true for many other countries. South Korea is still in the process of eliminating disparities that have emerged during its forced development in the third, fourth and fifth republic. The last ex-general left the presidential office in Seoul in spring 1993. Still, the chaebŏl dominate an economy that lacks a strong base in small and medium enterprises that forms the foundation of Germany’s economic strength and resilience. If the chaebŏl shake, the whole economy goes to its knees.

    The political landscape in South Korea is characterized by parties that still lack a local foundation that is comparable to that in the German political system with its strong local autonomy. Compromise is widely unknown in the political process; the winner usually takes all. Ruling party and opposition fight each other fiercely until the point of physical fights in parliament. The bilateral relationship with the neighbors, in particular Japan, is characterized by mistrust and revanchism.

    South Korea is, domestically and in its foreign relations, fighting for normalization and recognition. It has achieved major progress in these endeavors and has the best chances to succeed further. However, if we compare this with West Germany at the time of German unification, we must admit that South Korea still has a long way to go to a achieve a similar status.

    I do not intend to push this point too far; suffice to say that we should think twice before unconditionally establish equivalence between West Germany and South Korea. Most striking, however, are the differences between East Germany and North Korea. These found their expression rather early in the bilateral relationship in the form of mutual incomprehension.

    Among the few similarities are a dictatorial one-party rule, the claim to be socialist, the absence of noteworthy private means of production, or the absence of a convertible currency. But even when looking at political repression, which is endemic and thus typical for state-socialist systems, we find huge differences. In East Germany for the 1980s, there were no labor camps, no public executions, and no family responsibility. That did not make repression less prevalent or effective; it was much more subtle, however and therefore, as many victims had to find out to their great disappointment after unification, harder to legally prosecute.

    Considering the scale and scope of crimes against the North Korean population,  it is unlikely that revenge taken by the victims will be as bloodless and relatively unspectacular as that was the case in East Germany. Since the number of culprits will be as large as that of the victims, we have to consider the risk of a rupture of North Korean society that would show parallels to the events after 1945 when Koreans had to find ways to deal with colonial collaborators.

    Regarding ideology, too, it is tempting to lump all those “Commies” together, but that would be short-sighted. Germany, the country of Marx and Engels, home to one of the first strong social democratic political parties and with the bitter experience of World War 2 has despite the import of Stalinism created a very different leftist movement if compared to North Korea. In addition, North Korea has given up Marxism-Leninism rather early with the creation of chuch’e, a national version of socialism that de-emphasized objective laws of societal development and promoted subjective leadership by a single leader instead. The ideology of North Korea is much more nationalist than it is socialist; it will thus be much harder to overcome than ideology in East Germany, where it had already lost most of its credibility many years before unification.

    Of importance is also the different degree of integration in international networks. While the GDR was economically part of COMECON and militarily of the Warsaw Treaty, the DPRK has avoided full membership and insisted on its own, independent way. The country paid with poverty and has nevertheless never reached true autarky, but it survived the collapse of the socialist block precisely because of that lack of integration and until present time shows a remarkable ability to withstand international pressure and isolation. A Korean unification will have a much less disruptive effect on vital economic and political networks than that was the case in Germany.

    Within the group of socialist countries, the GDR was seen as one of the richest; in the capitalist camp, West Germany, too, was regarded as one of the top economies. German unification took place between two of the leading countries of two opposing camps. In Korea, however, the situation is different. North Korea is now part of the same world as South Korea. Unless the current crisis in Ukraine will trigger a second Cold War, a Korean unification will take place between a highly and a lowly developed country from within the same context. This constellation differs from Germany and will accordingly have different effects.

    The German example is often interpreted as proof that the costs of unification in Korea will be enormous because of the much higher level of economic development of East Germany if compared to North Korea. I have strong doubts regarding the correctness of such assumptions because they usually do not consider the next stations in the circulation of money that was transferred to the East; most of it returned west.But beyond economic cost-benefit calculations, I would also like to argue against the expectation of a rapid harmonization of the quality of life in North and South Korea after unification. The latter had been a core topic of German unification;  in fact, the latter might not have happened if Helmut Kohl had not promised “flourishing landscapes”, a rapid currency union, the conversion of East German savings into the West German currency at a very favorable rate, and so forth. But would it be correct to assume similar expectations among North Koreans?

    My discussions with people in North Korea do not suggest that. The weak medial presence of South Korea in the North has led to the absence – so far – of exaggerated hopes. Hardly any North Korean expects that within one year after unification, he will own a mid-size car and a small house, travel to exotic holiday destinations twice a year, and of course have a well-paid permanent job. Enough to eat, a well heated apartment, stable supply of electricity and a future for their kids – these are the typical expectations North Koreans have regarding unification. East Germans, however, expected a currency conversion at the rate of 1:1 and an immediate harmonization of wages and pensions. The price of these politically motivated favors were bankrupt companies and exploding unemployment, which became the main reasons for exponentially growing costs of unification and related social policies.

    Moreover, North Korea meanwhile develops away from being a typical socialist country. The lack of goods, which has long been one of the similarities between East Germany and North Korea, is being replaced by a lack of purchasing power and money that is typical for capitalist systems. The Chinese are acting as teachers of a market economy; they are now a window to the world that East Germany never had in that form.

    At the same time, the lack of supply in East Germany had never gone as far as a famine. Supply of electricity has always been stable, and no East German had to freeze during winter time. North Korea on the other hand has gained notoriety for its great famine in the 1990s and for being a black spot on an otherwise brightly lit nightly satellite photo of the Korean peninsula and its surroundings.

    Nevertheless, the attitude towards the own system among North Koreans seems to differ markedly from East Germany. As far as I can tell based on conversations that took place under rather restricted conditions, most North Koreans do not seem to be aware of the fact that the economic shortcomings which they see and openly address are the consequence of socialist (mis)management. In East Germany, that was more or less clear to most citizens, and it was openly discussed and criticized. At the same time, East Germany insisted on strict economic planning, while North Korea for many years, except a very indicative ten-year development plan, has not communicated the contents of its central plans. What is being planned in their country, how, and why – this is largely unclear to North Koreans.

    This list cold certainly be expanded; at this point, it should be long and detailed enough to see that neither an analogy between Germany and Korea nor between their respective parts would withstand serious testing. There is simply no solid foundation for a bilateral comparison.

    This is not to say that nothing can be learned. I have argued elsewhere that we should primarily look for issues and potentially problematic fields – not in order to use them as a blueprint for Korea’s future, but as a hypothesis that should be tested piece by piece regarding its relevance.

    II. The Dresden Speech

    With the above concerns regarding a German-Korean comparison in mind, let me now have a closer look at President Park Geun-hye’s speech in Dresden on 28 March 2014. Weeks before, the speech had been announced as a landmark event comparable to President Kim Dae-jung’s speech in Berlin on 10 March 2000. Despite an initially cold North Korean reaction, the Berlin Declaration was followed by the first-ever inter-Korean summit in June of the same year. That summit had far-reaching results, such as the establishment of the Kaesŏng Industrial Zone. Given the fact that inter-Korean relations have cooled down substantially since President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, expectations regarding a change in Seoul’s hardline stance were strong and added significance to the Dresden speech. Moreover, President Park had earlier in 2014 made a few very strong statements regarding unification, including calling it a “jackpot” (taebak) and a bonanza. It thus seems justified to regard her Dresden speech as programmatic and as symbolic of her attitude towards North Korea and national unification.


    I admit that I was not fully convinced by President Park’s choice of location. After all, this was the most symbolic part of her speech, so she and her advisors must have given deep thought to where it should be held. They decided to go to the former East; a very laudable decision in principle. The question is, however: Did they go to appreciate the role of East Germans in national unification, to celebrate how, despite all difficulties, both parts of Germany grow together day by day? Or did they go to East Germany to have a look at their West German friends’ new acquisition, and to see how effectively the former enemy had been defeated and put into his secondary place?

    The choice of Dresden does not provide a clear answer to that. Dresden is the capital of the federal state of Saxony. Saxony, my home region, has been an industrial and intellectual center of Germany before division, and with the help of that legacy it is now the most economically successful of the five new East German federal states. It is a beautiful city at the river Elbe, full with baroque buildings from the time of King August the Strong. Dresden is also a symbol for the inhumanity of war, as this cultural center without much military significance was burnt to ashes by three days of indiscriminate area bombing in February 1945. So far, so good, but what happened in Dresden regarding German unification?

    Before I continue, I should note that I was equally unhappy with Kim Dae-jung’s choice of Free University as the venue for his 2000 speech.  Free University is a product of the Cold War; it was founded by the Americans after division. I would have preferred a location in the East (for example, my Alma Mater Humboldt University) or at the former border (Brandenburg Gate, or Bornholm Bridge). Nevertheless, selecting Berlin made good sense; this is where Honecker was ousted in October 1989, and where the Wall was opened by accident on Nov. 9, 1989. It now is unified Germany’s capital – not Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. Hardly a place could therefore be regarded as more symbolic for Germany’s division and its unification.

    The progressive President Kim had spoken in Berlin; I can see why conservative President Parkdecided against speaking at the same place. She needed an alternative, and there were many options. What about Leipzig, for example. One hour's drive west of Dresden, this is where the huge Monday demonstration on 9 October 1989 with over 100,000 participants triggered the GDR’s implosion. I admit, Leipzig is my home town, so my view is perhaps biased. There would have been numerous other options. Among them are Weimar, the city of Goethe, or Erfurt, where Willy Brandt spoke to the crowd from the balcony of Hotel Elephant in March 1970. Frankfurt/Oder comes to mind, a city that symbolizes the peaceful and non-revanchist nature of German unification as it is situated at the border with Poland that had been redrawn after World War 2. Poland, a country that suffered massively from German imperialist ambitions, was seriously worried about a unified Germany reclaiming its lost territory. Frankfurt/Oder is a symbol of the solidly principled stance that unified Germany respects the borders of 1945. Park could also have spoken at the rebuilt “Bridge of German Unification” that connects the West German federal state of Bavaria and the East German state of Thuringia. There would have been many otheralternatives, but none of them was chosen.

    The official reason for the selection of Dresden was a speech given by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl there on 19 December 1989.By that time about 70% of East Germans had in an opinion poll voted for a reformed GDR, not for a unified Germany. Everything seemed to point into the direction of a confederation and a slow process of growing together. There was little doubt that unification was to come; but few people wanted it immediately. As observers noted, the event was well organized. A group consisting of “tall blond men”, their backs toward the speaker’s podium, continuously shouted encouragement to the crowd. A few rows further behind, there was “no sign of euphoria” and even “listlessness”. Media coverage was carefully orchestrated, however, so that the event came across as a powerful expression of East German’s desire for a fast unification.

    Some of my friends still say with bitterness that it was the Dresden speech when Kohl stole the revolution and turned it into his personal triumph, a quick unification by absorption. Despite all lip service to how he wanted to respect East Germans and their decisions and to how he discussed with his GDR counterpart to sign a treaty to form a confederation, it was made very clear to everyone that if they wanted the Deutschmark, they had to want unification too, rather than indigenous reforms. In the end, a majority voted for Kohl’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the March 1990 elections in the GDR. The new parliament immediately started working on its own dissolution, first by giving up its own currency on 1 July 1990, and then by accession to the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990.


    Against this background, it is noteworthy that among those accompanying President Park during her speech was Lothar de Maizière. A lawyer, a devout Christian (like current German Chancellor Merkel and German President Gauck) and leader of the East German branch of the CDU, he was elected as the last GDR Prime Minister in March 1990, with massive help from the Western CDU and Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

    Lothar de Maizièrefaced a tough task in 1990: negotiating the unification treaty as the representative of East Germany. He did so under hellish time pressure and without much political experience; he had been a politician only for a few months. His counterparts, however, were veteran West German politicians. It was thus natural that he looked for advice – and he received it from his cousin, Thomas de Maizière. The latter’s family was fortunate enough to end up in West Germany after division. The two cousins had been in touch before unification, since, as discussed above, such contacts had been possible in particular during the 1980s. Thomas de Maizière was a member of the West German CDU, so they came from the same political camp. During the hasty negotiations about the unification treaty, a document with 266 pages,  the Western cousin was the main advisor to his Eastern cousin – and at the same time a member of the West German negotiation team. After 1990, his career took a sharp upswing. He is currently Minister of the Interior in the cabinet of Angela Merkel.

    De Maizière’s predecessor as East German Prime Minister was Hans Modrow. He was part of the old system and a cadre of the SED which had for decades held the power monopoly in East Germany and suppressed democracy. Modrow was long regarded as a potential reformer from within, an East German Mikhail Gorbachev. Erich Honecker tried to get rid of him. But when Modrowfinally came to power after Honecker was ousted in October 1989 and his successor-turned-Brutus Krenz was sacked in November 1989, it was too late. Events had by then become hyper dynamic, and not least to the efforts of Helmut Kohl, the focus had shifted from reform to unification. Modrow tried hard, but there was little he could do. Why do I mention him? From 1973 until November 1989, Moodrow had been First Secretary of the SED (the East German Communist Party) in – guess where – yes, in Dresden.

    It would have been a remarkable signal if President Park had talked to him. However, I did not see Modrow’s name on her guest list. Perhaps because he is still a member of Die Linke, a leftist party that got 8.6% of the votes for the Bundestag in 2013 and is currently the third strongest (democratically elected) political force in Germany after the CDU and the Social Democrats. 25 years after the collapse of East Germany, they are still seen as “Commies” by those whose Cold War indoctrination has survived unaltered until present day. And I suppose the last thing President Park is looking forward to is to see how a North Korean political party, built on the foundations of the Korean Worker’s Party, wins a quarter or so of the seats in a unified Korean parliament (the relation between North and South Koreans is 1:2; that between East and West Germans was 1:4).

    In any case, Hans Modrow is an interesting man who is very symbolic of the pros and cons of the German unification process. He is a controversial person. He was a part of the old system, but also represented East Germany’s last chance to reform itself from within, rather than being integrated into West Germany. He, and people like him, are a disturbing proof that the old elite was itself not homogeneous. All were pro-system, but many were at the same time reformist and progressive.

    Modrow was absent during Park’s speech; De Maizière was present. It is hard not to regard this as deeply symbolic.

    Praise the West, neglect the East

    I will turn to the contents of Park’s speech now. I will do so looking for symbolism as outlined above, and less with regard to the actual proposals. The latter have been covered extensively elsewhere.

    The content of the speech was in accordance with the choice of location and audience. After a few due words of praise for Dresden University of Technology which had bestowed an honorary doctorate upon her, Park looked back at history: “The Korean president who visited Germany at the timefelt that Germany's rise from the ashes of the Second World War and its Miracle on the Rhine were feats that could be replicated in Korea.” I am sure many Koreans and also a few Germans will have had second thoughts after hearing Park mentioning her father’s visit in such a positive way. Park Chung-hee is the father of South Korea’s rise from the ashes and of its rapid economic development. But that development came at the price of massive human rights violations. A prominent victim was none else but Kim Dae-jung who had almost been killed by Park Chung-hee’s intelligence agents; there are thousands of nameless victims, many of whom are still alive. Imagine a German president visiting Japan and mentioning the good relations it had with Nazi Germany. This comparison might be too extreme and thus inappropriate, but I nevertheless believe that a more diplomatic and self-critical way could have been found to fresh up memories of the past. We should also note that in particular during the rule of Park Chung-hee, West German-South Korean relations were at their lowest point. In 1967, West Germany considered ending diplomatic relations with South Korea over the forcible extraction of Koreans residing in Germany, among them the famous composer Yun Isang, by Korean intelligence operatives.

    This legacy, and the contrast it forms to the nostalgic memories that Park Geun-hye shared in her speech, does not point into the direction of a self-critical approach among conservative politicians in South Korea. Instead, it implies that the dark spots of the past are to be eradicated or reinterpreted, with the aim to portray South Korea as the representative of the “good” – in contrast to a “bad” North Korea?

    Such an impression is supplemented by the fact that Park talked extensively (mentioned four times) about the miracle at the Rhine (West Germany, 1950s) and the Korean nurses and miners who came to (West) Germany (1960s and 1970s) as proof of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Germany and Korea. This is the sign of a regrettable lack of sensitivity. Why going to East Germany and then talking about events that connect her country to West Germany?

    The focus on West Germany is particularly regrettable since there would have been a lot to say about German-Korean relations that relates directly and positively to Saxony’s capital and its people. In and around Dresden, several hundred Korean children were raised for a few years in orphanages in the 1950s.  Hundreds of North Korean students graduated from Dresden’s Technical University; some of them defected to the West before the border was closed in 1961.

    Unfortunately, the above impression prevails when we consider that Hans Mueller-Steinhagen, the Rector of the Technical University Dresden, who stood next to President Park, comes from Karlsruhe (West Germany). Like him, a quarter of a century after unification the elite in East Germany often speaks West German dialects. The Rector’s origin was very likely pure coincidence, and is not necessarily to be seen as negative. I strongly believe German unification was a great gift to us Germans, in particular in the East. I even think that the way it proceeded, despite all mistakes, was the only possible way under the circumstances. And I know about many cases of extraordinary Western generosity, on the individual and on the institutional level. But be it right or wrong: the feeling of colonization was and is strong, many East Germans regard unification as a kind of hostile takeover.  A sensitive politician would understand and consider that.

    I am afraid that many East Germansamong the audience got the absurd impression that in President Park’s view, their lives were sad and worthless until 1990, and that only afterwards the utterly ugly and desperate city of Dresden developed into something beautiful and noteworthy. “The years since unification have seen Dresden emerge from a backwater into a world-class city known for its advanced science and technology.” This is a very cynical remark. The renovated landmark opera house (Semperoper) was opened in 1985, the TV and the LCD have been invented in Dresden. Even Helmut Kohl in his 1989 speech was careful to pay at least lip service to the achievements of forty years of hard labor in East Germany. Park created the impression in her speech that every accomplishment before 1990 must have been an accident; how would it be conceivable that something positive or successful was done in the “backwater” of East Germany? Or in the starving stone-age gulag state of North Korea?

    A few days later I was later contacted by an East German colleague, a professor at Dresden University of Technology, who was present at the speech. He had very similar feelings and even wrote a letter of protest to the Rector afterwards; it was ignored.

    Signals to North Korea

    Imagine a North Korean who is as familiar with German history as I am – and this is not an unrealistic assumption since that familiarity is not overly deep, and North Korean diplomats are typically trained as country specialists, not as generalists. What would have been their analysis of the hidden messages in Park’s speech?

    (1) The location was chosen in what at first glance appears to be reference to East Germany, but in fact marks a Helmut Kohl speech that finalized the transformation of the indigenous East German reform movement into a pan-German unification campaign. The North Korean leadership reads: if you risk reform, this will be your end. We will try to use that opportunity in the same way as Kohl did.

    (2) The entourage reflects the focus of President Park on West Germans. The North Korean elite reads: You are welcome to support me, and perhaps I will even bless you with my attention, but only if you play according to my rules. The rest of the elite will be ignored – if you are lucky. In any case, get ready to make room for South Korean bosses.Just in case the millions of North Korean Party members are wondering what their place will be after unification.

    (3) The speech emphasized relations between Korea and Germany but focused entirely on South and West. East German-North Korean relations were ignored. North Koreans read: After unification, we will treat the North as being of secondary importance, an accident. Korea’s history after 1945 is South Korea’s history.

    (4) East Germany was displayed as a miserable place that only saw the light after unification. North Koreans read: None of your achievements in culture, technology or elsewhere will be recognized. No matter what you accomplished, you did so under the wrong conditions, so it is worthless.

    Against this background, it is not surprising that North Korea’s official reaction to Park’s speech was very negative. The online edition of the Korean Central News Agency carried a number of articles, including a statement of the country’s highest organ, the National Defense Commission. All these statements were unnecessarily full of immature, abusive prose that makes it impossible to take even justified criticism by Pyongyang seriously. But amidst all the slander were a few specific complaints about Park’s plans to call on outside help to unify the country, her desire for absorbing the North, and for unduly praising her father. Another article accused her of attempts to “lure people with money” and her desire to engage in a “confrontation of social systems”.

    It would be wrong and unfair to deny that President Park’s speech contained a number of very important, laudable points. She emphasized the need for South and North to develop a proper understanding of each other, to restore a common identity through constant efforts, to rehabilitate the North’s infrastructure, to engage in capacity building in North Korea and so forth. The problem is that these points got buried under a pile of issues that have been perceived by the North as offensive, arrogant or dishonest.

    Regarding the current ROK government’s attitude towards the DPRK, the Dresden speech was very revealing. What a signal to the North Koreans on all levels, and a headstrong way of trust building. I am sure it will not be without an effect. However, I dare doubt that it has helped increase North Korean enthusiasm for fast, Seoul-led unification. I wonder whether President Park and her staff have fallen to the fallacy of comparing the German and the Korean case too uncritically.

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