[Viewpoint] Lesson from German unification

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[Viewpoint] Lesson from German unification

On Sept. 30, I had a meeting with Michael Geier, former ambassador of Germany to Seoul, in Berlin, Germany. His apartment was about 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) from the Berlin Wall in an area that used to belong to the former East Germany.

Just as I was about to ring the bell at the entrance of the building, he appeared from around the corner on his bicycle.

The 66-year-old former diplomat climbed up the stairs to his apartment on the fifth floor briskly, and I thought he was every bit German: active and diligent.

His living room was filled with items he had brought from Korea, from a traditional ironing stone and stick to glazed earthenware. I also spotted a white porcelain pot with the calligraphy writing of former Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

Geier was well informed on current affairs in Korea, such as the Cheonan incident. He said he stays updated about Korean affairs by reading online news.

Geier was appointed as ambassador in 2003 and served in Seoul until he was reassigned to the German embassy in Bulgaria. He retired from the diplomatic service last year.

During the interview, he said that he has given up on making predictions on the timing of the unification of the two Koreas.

“It could happen anytime in a very near future, but it also might be realized in a distant future.”

And he told me two stories. The first episode is from 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall fell.

A reporter asked German Chancellor Willy Brandt which among Korea and Germany would become reunified first.

Brandt responded that Korea would probably be the first. But the unification of East and West Germany came so suddenly that even the chancellor himself had not predicted it merely two years before.

The other story is about a bet he had with a friend.

He and his close friend - another diplomat - were discussing the timing of unification of the two Koreas and made a bet, with a rare bottle of Champagne at stake.

In the early days of his service in Korea, he told his friend that the unification of South and North Korea would happen while he was still working in Korea.

His friend argued that the unification would not come anytime in the next few years.

They made a bet and Geier lost because the two Koreas had not been unified by the time he left for his next assignment. When he came to Korea in 2003, the peninsula was heated with the vision for unification after the inter-Korean summit meeting three years before.

There were rumors that the newly inaugurated Roh Moo-hyun administration was working on arranging the second summit meeting between the president of South Korea and the chairman of the North Korean National Defense Commission.

Geier said that while he was in Seoul, he had been asked to give advice on a “unification tax” by high-ranking government officials on a number of occasions.

He said he had the impression that the government had internally decided on establishing a unification tax.

It was his understanding that the former administration had a plan to impose the unification tax but could not announce it, as it might provoke Pyongyang.

Geier emphasized that it was necessary to secure funding to finance the unification process, whether it is called a unification tax or anything else, and it was not just for North Korean residents but South Koreans as well.

The experts on German unification that I had met in Germany said the group that was most negatively affected by the unification was the low-income class of West Germany.

Because of the cost of unification, the German government had to cut welfare expenses. Companies benefited from the new inflow of cheap labor, but the socially underprivileged West Germans had to endure harsher economic situations.

If Germany, which was economically solid, had to struggle to finance its unification, it would be even harder for Korea.

Moreover, unification may come suddenly without a notice and the timing might not necessarily take Korea’s financial situation into account either.

Therefore, we need to have a national-level insurance to secure financial resources to pay for the unification process, not just for the North Korean residents but for ourselves and the future generations of Koreans.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Sang-eon
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