Curious politicians flock to Germany
After Park Geun-hye was elected as Korea’s first woman president, Germany grew even more relevant due to its woman chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Sohn Hak-kyu, a senior adviser for the Democratic United Party, began the trend when he left for Germany on Jan. 15. The former Gyeonggi governor who unsuccessfully ran in the DUP presidential primary will complete a six-month study program financed by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
“I decided to go to Germany for self-reflection because I see the country as a model that Korea should learn from to plan for its future,” Sohn wrote in his e-mail to his friends on Feb. 7. “Because we have endless debates on the welfare system and education and labor issues, I want to learn as much as I can from Germany, which has already solved similar problems.”
Kim Du-kwan, former South Gyeongsang governor who ran in the DUP’s presidential primary last year, also left for the Free University of Berlin on March 11.
“Germany has many strong, small companies, and we can learn about national unification from the country,” Kim said. “It has a well-established regional autonomous government system and party politics. I want to close my first chapter as a politician and find a new direction for my political life in Germany.”
Kim’s stay was also funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
“Many politicians have already gone to the United States,” he said. “I think Germany has more to offer. I am particularly interested in the strengths of the German political parties such as the party list voting systems.”
Kwon Teag-ky, a former Saenuri Party lawmaker, is also planning a research trip to Germany.
“We increasingly talk about economic democratization,” Kwon said. “In Germany, we see few complaints about the process of redistributing profits. While most EU countries are in fiscal crises, Germany is the soundest. I want to learn about the country’s advanced systems.”
Yoon Young-kwan, former foreign minister who worked for the short-lived presidential campaign of Ahn Cheol-soo, also left to study at the Free University of Berlin on March 8 for a six-month program.
“It is my sabbatical,” Yoon told the JoongAng Sunday. “I want to learn about Germany’s unification. It’s also a country with a strong welfare system. Its economy is thriving amid the global economic crisis, so I am curious how Germany manages to stay competitive while keeping social stability.”
Won Hee-ryong, formerly a Saenuri lawmaker often considered to be a potential presidential contender, is currently staying in England but frequently visits Germany. He has been a visiting academic at the University of Cambridge since June, and studies German social polarization and political parties.
Kim Hwang-sik, the former prime minister who left his post last month, is also planning a research trip to Germany next month to study the country’s social welfare system.
Sohn, Kim Doo-kwan and Yoon have denied rumors that they will meet in Germany to discuss a new direction for the struggling liberal wing of Korean policies, but regardless, the country has emerged as a source of inspiration that can compete with the United States.
The German model was also a popular topic of study during the so-called “Miracle on the Han River” of the 1960s and 70s, modeled after Germany’s “Miracle on the Rhine.” And after its reunification in 1990, the German process of economic development and social integration became an important example for Korea.
Kim Tack-hwan, a media communications professor at Kyonggi University who studied at Germany’s University of Bonn and presented the country as Korea’s next model in his book “Next Korea,” said Germany is largely interested in Korea’s future because of its national division.
“While studying in the United States costs your own money, Germany is supporting Korea’s future leadership,” Kim said. “When the two Koreas are united, we will have about the same population as Germany. A unified Korea will be an export-driven economy and a society that highly relies on education and leadership like Germany, so it is certainly an appropriate benchmark for Korean politicians.”
A representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation said it arranged trips for politicians such as Sohn and Kim after they asked to participate.
“We are open to providing similar opportunities to Saenuri Party lawmakers if their research topics fit with our direction,” he added.
The foundation provides 1,500 euros ($1,958) a month to each fellow in addition to funding to visit three other European nations.
Sohn plans to study the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany who was credited with leading the country from the ruins of World War II to prosperity.
Kim said he wants to look closely at Germany’s party politics, economy and foreign policy.
“Until now, Korean economic and social models were planned after U.S. systems, but we are facing limits,” Kwon said. “Those who want to learn about new trends are looking at Europe.”
By Baek Il-hyun, Ser Myo-ja [firstname.lastname@example.org]