[Viewpoint] Regular people tore down that wall

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[Viewpoint] Regular people tore down that wall

I was there!

Well, no, truthfully, I was not present at the fall of the Berlin Wall, whose 20th anniversary the world has been marking this month. But I got there quickly. As a Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent, I had reported for many years from Moscow, Bonn and London. So when the wall fell, my editors sent me back to Germany to explain what was going on.

I wrote about a spy novelist whose premise — treachery and counter-treachery across the Wall — had suddenly vanished.

I wrote about students who crossed into West Berlin for the simple purpose of scoring a few bananas, and then hustled back to the East.

I wrote about the discovery by West Berlin trendsetters that you could get a fashionable hair
treatment in the East for half of the Western price.

I wrote about the sudden loss of relevance, and thus of income, of university professors of Marxist theory.

And perhaps I gave my editors more than they had bargained for. I wrote that Germany was now de facto unified, and only the diplomatic details needed to be filled in.

I thought that was a Page One story for sure. But I had to argue strenuously to get it in the paper at all.

“That’s not what we’re hearing from Washington,” my boss said.

“And it is not yet what the German Chancellery is saying,” I remonstrated. “All I can tell you is that unification is happening in the streets.”

My story, barbarously truncated, ended up on Page 11 or 17, or somewhere. But I was right.

Eleven months later, the diplomatic details got worked out and East and West Germany merged.

Meanwhile, one by one, the Communist states of Eastern Europe threw off their dictatorships and claimed their rights as free citizens, ending in the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself on Dec. 31, 1991.

The Velvet Revolution, the Quiet Revolution. And most astonishing of all, there was hardly any bloodshed, and Europe suddenly was whole and free.

Could Korea be so lucky? Could Korea, without bloodshed, become whole and free?

That certainly is the dream, but it confronts a number of hard realities. Most obviously, neither of the Koreas is really committed to unification. North Korea’s leadership doesn’t want to give up power and perks, and South Korea’s doesn’t want to take on the North’s catastrophic problems.

China and Russia, moreover, have no great desire to see a
strengthened Korea, allied with the United States, on their borders.
But events are not always decided by leaders. People will put
up with a lot from their governments, but ultimately if leaders
get too far out of step with popular will, the leaders will fall.

That was what happened in Berlin. Liberals give the credit to Mikhail Gorbachev’s wisdom,
and conservatives to Ronald Reagan’s determination. But neither
would have been effective without citizen activism.

Activism took many forms in Eastern Europe, none more dramatic
than the weekly “peace prayers” that developed in St.
Nicholas Church in the East German city of Leipzig.

These began as small gatherings of a handful of people and swelled over the months until every seat in the 2,000-capacity
church was filled, with thousands more standing outside the church with lighted candles, supporting the peace vigil.
Alarmed, the East German authorities began to pack the church with security police armed with live ammunition. They had
been told that their job was to protect their country from sedition, but what they heard in the
church was “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your
enemies” and “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever
will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

The Wall fell because the regime lost its nerve. “We had
planned everything,” a Communist Party official said. “We were
prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
All the Communist regimes at their outset moved quickly to
break up any groups that might prove sources of civic solidarity.

In East Germany, hiking clubs were disbanded and replaced by government-sponsored organizations.

The Soviet Union even brought the Esperanto speakers association to heel.

And yet, over time, people found each other — intellectuals in Czechoslovakia, factory workers in Poland, dissidents in the Soviet Union, churchgoers in East Germany.

Nothing similar seems to have developed in North Korea.

Atomized by their regime, perhaps the people have even forgotten how to associate. During the Japanese occupation of the last century Korean exiles organized a great amount of agitation— in the United States, in China and elsewhere — for Korean independence.

There is no significant counterpart among North Korean refugees today.

And yet the tensions between a government that can no longer
successfully continue on its path and a disillusioned people remain.
Refugees tell stories of increasing corruption and even of
local acts of defiance against the regime.

So far the Pyongyang leadership evidently retains its willingness
to use force to control its people. As the pressures against
it increase, will it one day lose its nerve, as East Germany did?
And “one day” is about how long the disintegration will take,
once it begins. A year, even a month before the collapse of the
Berlin Wall it seemed impregnable.

After a decade of “sunshine” policies and six-party talks, it is pretty clear that Kim Jong-il’s North Korea does not intend to be lured in from the cold of its isolation. That means there will be no soft landing when the regime ends.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily

by Harold Piper


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