Korea looks to Germany for insightTo realize the unification of two Germanys, politicians in West Germany made bipartisan efforts to maintain an integrated and consistent position that transcended what they stood to gain politically, despite how strong their feelings may have been to the contrary.
Previously, conservatives and liberals stood on opposites sides of a sharp divide and were conflicted over policy-making on the issue. The Christian Democrats (CDU) of West Germany held a strict position of combating the Communist East, while the Social Democrats(SPD) supported close cooperation and reconciliation with the East, Poland and the Soviet bloc.
In 1969, Willy Brandt, the leader of the SPD at the time, began to implement a policy of Ostpolitik, which emphasized rapprochement with East Germany and other Soviet countries. While the CDU was traditionally strongly opposed to reunification, its leaders eventually shifted in their reluctance, increasing their acceptance of some SPD reforms over time while also appearing to adapt some CDU convictions with SPD ideology.
Since then, Germany has maintained its stance on unification policy, regardless of which party has been in the majority.
And analysts in Seoul point out that South Korea should also make bipartisan efforts to implement a consistent policy on unification.
Former presidents have historically refused the policies of their conservative or liberal predecessors when it comes to North-South integration, proposing new or revised frameworks instead. Although there were two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, in which the two sides declared to work toward overcoming ideological differences and establishing permanent peace, the implementation of the agreements resulting from those talks have remained at the center of a fierce debate between the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition.
“Although it is important that the current administration makes achievements in inter-Korean relations, we need to meet the goal of setting up an integrated unification policy that can be inherited to the next generation,” said Chon Hyun-joon, the head of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute.
“For this, the presidential preparatory committee for unification should embrace analysts beyond their age and ideology, and allow them to have enough discussions for a policy that all people can accept,” he said. “However, it would take time.”
Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun added that a long-term vision was also necessary.
“We need a strategist who has a keen sense of foresight into the future and who also is a realist, like former German Prime Minister Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt,” he said.
Even though there would likely be ideological differences between the ruling and opposition parties in dealing with North Korean affairs, said Chin Hee-gwan, a unification studies professor at Inje University, a policy for unification cannot be a matter of political squabbling or discord.
“Just like the two Germanys persuaded the public to agree on unification with the goal of unification for the entire European continent, we need a big goal - peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia - and take steps toward that.”
The way to the North’s heart
Another key in Germany’s success in unification lied in the West’s efforts to win over East Germans through various economic and trade policies. Both the government and the private sector had long made efforts to warm East Germans to the idea of unification, and in the end, nearly a year after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany again become one nation on Oct. 3, 1990.
“West Germany showed its consideration for East Germans, like fixing the currencies of both countries equally,” said Yeom Don-jay, the dean of Sungkyunkwan University’s Graduate School of Strategic Studies. “Those considerations and a social welfare system convinced those in the East to accept unification without fear.”
However, the South Korean government has shown little progress in engaging the North Korean people. The liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun offered a massive amount of aid to the North between 1998 and 2008 using taxpayers’ money, but both failed to appeal to the North Korean populace.
Since then, a rift has emerged between liberal and conservative South Korean lawmakers over government-level aid, often referred to as the “South-South conflict.”
North Korea has also neglected to foster inter-Korean interactions. East Germany, for example, allowed its citizens to watch West Germany’s television programs before unification, though North Korea has blocked Southern culture from infiltrating the state for more than six decades - although instances of illegally downloaded video files of South Korean dramas making their way into North Korea via China have been uncovered.
Analysts in Seoul say now is the time for the government to consider ways to attract North Korean citizens, just as West Germany did.
On March 20, at a seminar co-hosted by the Korea Policy Research Center and the North Korea Strategy Center, eight North Korean defectors who claimed to be top elites in the regime discussed ways to offer aid effectively to the North Korean people to turn their attention toward unification with the South.
“We should open some department stores in Pyongyang or other major cities that sell South Korean products at a cheap price,” said Lee Jun-ik, a defector who said he worked in the military industry in the regime.
Some defectors have also proposed sending gifts to Northerners ahead of the Chuseok holidays or Lunar New Year - daily necessities or ever-popular Choco Pies.
“When I lived in the North, I received some packs of flour, which read ‘Presents from friends in the United States,’ I felt appreciated,” said Kim Yeong-hui, a defector who works in Korea Development Bank’s research department. “We need a new type of aid for the North Korean people, not large-scale assistance like rice or fertilizer.”
Ahn Chan-il, a defector turned analyst, said South Korea ultimately needs more support for unification from the 26,000 defectors living in the country.
“South Korea calls defectors ‘a symbol of unification,’ but it still needs to make more efforts to embrace them,” Ahn said. “Defectors will play a role in narrowing the gap between the two Koreas in the process of unification, as they, too, have experienced two different systems [of government].”
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University, said President Park Geun-hye would be wise to seek lessons from Germany during her state visit to Berlin this week.
“People in both Koreas need to prepare to learn ‘the will of living together,’” he added.
Freikauf: quiet ransom
South Korean politicians and officials have often made mention of the concept of “Freikauf,” a German word that literally means “ransom,” and refers to the repatriation of prisoners from East Germany to the West before unification, while the East received money or aid in exchange.
Jun Byung-hun, floor leader of the Democratic Party, proposed to adopt the Freikauf model to the two Koreas in his speech last October at the National Assembly. A week after, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told lawmakers at a hearing in the Assembly that he would “review” the proposal.
But still, no progress has been made. The unification minister did not mention it during his report to the president on the ministry’s New Year’s policy-making plan in early January. Although the minister told reporters that the matter would be a long-term task, concerns have mounted among some analysts that time is of the essence when it comes to aging South Korean POWs who have been detained in the Communist North since the 1950-53 Korean War.
“Freikauf is the first step in improving inter-Korean relations,” Ahn Chan-il, a defector turned analyst, said. “As it has been proven to work in Germany, the government needs to come forward to push it.”
According to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, the number of South Korean POWs dragged to North Korea during the Korean War was 82,318. And a UN statistic says there were approximately 88,000 South Korean soldiers who went missing during the war. Considering some POWs could have been included in the number of dead soldiers, there could have been as many as 120,000 POWs.
North Korea has since returned 7,862 soldiers to the South, and Seoul estimates that about 500 POWs are still alive in the regime, and that they would be mostly in their 80s.
Germany’s success in Freikauf was attained quietly. Between 1963 and 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, West Germany provided to the East 3.4 billion Deutsche Mark, which is estimated to be about $1.5 billion today, in return for the repatriation of 33,755 political prisoners from the East.
The West German government maintained a low-key posture in handling the project, in part as a conciliatory gesture. The repatriation was mostly carried out through behind-the-scenes contacts among civilians, including through churches or lawyers in the two Germanys. Local media also cooperated in the move, without reporting it to the public.
The quiet repatriation was mainly out of the West’s consideration for Eastern Germany’s repeated insistences that it was not holding political prisoners in its territory.
However, some analysts here say that it would be not helpful for negotiations over the repatriation of South Korean POWs if South Korean politicians make a public proposal. Like East Germany, North Korea has so far denied the existence of South Korean POWs.
“Rather than provoking North Korea through a public speech, we should create an atmosphere to persuade North Korea to accept the Freikauf through discreet contact,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at the Dongguk University. “Considering the average age of South Korean POWs and abductees in the North, the Unification Ministry should also work more actively on the issue.”
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