[VIEWPOINT]Look to Germany for hard lessonsEarlier this month, on October 3rd, the fifteenth anniversary of German unification passed with little sense of celebration. The psychological division between East and West Germans persists, with socioeconomics replacing ideology as the dividing line between West and East. Some estimate that German unification has cost up to US$1 trillion to date.
Newly-elected chancellor Andrea Merkel is the first from the former East Germany, but her coalition government is deeply divided and she presides over a country still struggling to digest the combination of economic subsidies and stagnation that accompanied German unification. These are sobering reminders of the heavy burdens that may accompany Korean unification.
The task of closing the economic gap between the two Germanys has provided one lesson that underlies South Korean efforts to promote economic cooperation, prospects for which have expanded with the inauguration of the Kaesong Economic Zone. If the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved satisfactorily, inter-Korean economic cooperation will include electricity provision by the South and support for North Korea’s full-scale economic development.
Promotion of inter-Korean economic and humanitarian cooperation has strong South Korean public support. But the potentially enormous costs of unification also necessitate efforts to ensure that each inter-Korean economic project is effective, sustainable and transparent. Through these projects, North Koreans should learn business skills and policies that can support a North Korean economic take-off. The Roh administration should support these principles in dealings with Hyundai Asan and other South Korean investors in North Korea. Otherwise, Korean taxpayers and private funds may be wasted on bribes or vanity projects that favor vested interests inside North Korea, or fail to promote North Korea’s economic development.
An equally important lesson from the German unification experience is the difficulty of addressing psychological divisions deriving from separate socialization experiences. These difficulties are already apparent now that over 7,000 refugees and defectors from North Korea are adapting with great difficulty to life in the South. Over one thousand refugees annually start new lives as citizens of South Korea. The challenge of supporting the integration of these new citizens is an opportunity to lay the foundation for ― and lower the costs of ― social integration between North and South.
To achieve this objective, it is time to reform the current unification ministry-led approach to managing assistance for North Korean refugees as they enter South Korea. As the task of managing inter-Korean economic relations grows, the current approach is no longer adequate because it risks fostering unnecessary misperceptions that ironically may impede the goal of Korean unification in at least three aspects.
First, the Unification Ministry’s responsibility for assisting North Korean refugees runs the risk that North Korea will utilize this issue as a pretext for halting the momentum of inter-Korean relations and economic exchanges. This already happened once last year when over 400 North Korean refugees were allowed to enter South Korea on charter planes from Southeast Asia.
Placing responsibility for handling refugees with a different part of the South Korean government would de-link refugee matters from inter-Korean cooperation within the South Korean government, and unburden the unification ministry to focus on the task of maintaining good relations with the North
Secondly, the transfer of the task of caring for North Korean refugees to another branch within the South Korean government would eliminate the false perception that there is a zero-sum budgetary choice to be made between supporting inter-Korean economic cooperation and supporting North Korean refugees.
The pace of inter-Korean economic cooperation and the number of North Korean refugees that come from North Korea are ultimately neither linked nor fully under the control of the South Korean government. Both tasks must be equal but unrelated priorities for any South Korean government that takes seriously its responsibilities in paving the way for Korean unification.
Thirdly, when North Korean refugees become South Korean citizens, they should be able receive a full range of services from each ministry of the South Korean government, unmediated by a particular ministry. As the number of North Korean refugee arrivals has increased in recent years, the unification ministry has begun to pursue cooperative arrangements with both local governments and social institutions.
Such efforts to spread the financial burdens associated with North Korean refugees while more effectively integrating them into South Korean society might be facilitated by the transfer of responsibility for coordinating services from the unification ministry to another branch of the government, and by enhanced development of special services for North Korean refugees within each government ministry.
If the psychological divisions between North and South Korea are to be addressed, it must start with effective management of the needs of those North Koreans who are already a part of South Korean society. And if unification is to succeed, responsibility for unification-related tasks will ultimately extend far beyond the Ministry of Unification.
This may be the most daunting lesson from fifteen years of German unification.
* The writer, a senior associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). The views expressed here are personal views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Scott Snyder