Lessons from German Reunification

When the Berlin Wall fell on the night of November 9th, 1989, the world stood in shock. No one expected the momentous symbol of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, to fall. Since 1961 it had stood towering over one of the most painful reminders of the Cold War, and in one night it came crumbling down. Western elites were so surprised at the sudden collapse of their ideological enemies, they did not have a plan ready which could be implemented immediately. German politicians agreed on “political reunification now, unity later.”[1] In other words, caught by surprise at the speed of East Germany’s collapse, Western politicians decided to secure political homogeneity at all costs, leaving cultural and societal unity for another time.  Is there possibility of Korean unity? Will the world once again be caught by surprise as yet another wall falls, or is hope too far gone for Korea? What might we learn from the German division and path to reunification, and how might it help inform and shape the dialogue around the issue of Korean Reunification?

On its face, the division of Korea today looks a lot like the division of Germany prior to 1989. Both countries are divided (although the former is North/South and the latter East/West) by a heavily guarded and armed border. Between the two Koreas it is the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel, and between the two Germanys it was the Berlin Wall. The Mauer divided the capital city, and the border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany (GRD) was ominously referred to as Der Todesstreifen German for the “death line.”[2] Both the Wall and the DMZ, both massive and oppressive structures divide a country (or two countries, depending on whom you ask), governed on one side by a democratic and capitalist society and on the other side by a communist-authoritarian regime. It comes as little surprise that the success story of German reunification[3] is used as a template for a potential Korean unification. But the two are not comparable. German division only lasted from 1945-1989 for a total of 44 years, while Korean division has lasted until the present day, for a total of 72 years, and counting. The distance which time will put between two countries separated and subjected to completely different living environments necessarily causes a rift and a cultural difference. These differences can be seen in the poll: whereas polls in Germany prior to reunification showed high interest in unity in Germany, the situation in South Korea reflects the rift of time, with an 18% margin between Korea and Germany (49% in South Korea / 67% in West Germany).[4]

Nevertheless, Korean unification being written off by South Koreans (read more here HYPERLINK) is not a reason to doubt the possibility of unification in the peninsula. In fact, Helmut Wagner, a German political scientist, noted that “reunification used to be a non-issue in divided Germany.”[5] The approval rating in West Germany was so low in the years leading up to reunification, that polls measured 3% positive responses to the prompt of whether unification was considered to be an issue of current political relevance.[6] The perceived disinterest in recent times regarding Korean reunification is not a deterrent for the possibility of unity happening, and soon at that. Another interesting statistic to compare between the two countries is the participation among youth.

What is of value in this comparison with Germany is what the German reunification process can reveal about the possibility of North and South Korea unifying, and what lessons can be extracted from the German experience.

In 1995 Kark-Bum Lee observes in his paper on “Social Integration of Two Koreas: With a Comparison of German Experiences” that the structural change for North Korea will be even more severe than it was for East German due to its isolation. Lee writes that “for a society largely isolated from the outside world, the shock from a sudden merge with the dynamic capitalistic South must be much greater than the more-or-less expected and anticipated junction of East Germany with the West.”[7] In the paper Lee strongly recommends – if not urges – that an economic and cultural assimilation (german: Annaeherung) precede the unification of the two countries. Otherwise a unification would have to procede under a unilateral South Korean initiative, to the detriment of the social fabric of the newly unified country. This “comprehensive policy” will help ease the transition and help preventively treat problems ensuing from interactions between economic and cultural sectors, such as mass migration to the South, and mass-unemployment. [8]

Another helpful comparison is crafted by Manfred Görtemaker in his conference paper on “Security in the Post-Cold War era: The Role of Germany and New Lessons for Korea.” In it, Görtemaker prescribes four main “lessons” from the German model which may be applied to the Korean scenario. Upon further study and analysis, two of these have been selected to be presented here. The first lesson for unity is preparation and long-term concepts. In this respect, Görtemaker highlights the importance of gradual pursuit of unity which both sides prepare for. Here, Görtemaker cites the new foreign policy adopted by West Germany in regards to East Germany, known as Ostpolitik, which helped normalize relations between East and West. The second lesson urges for a regional détente, urging neighboring and surrounding countries to be in agreement with the new policy being pursued in order to secure its success. The reduction of “enemy images,” is crucial both domestically and regionally, to facilitate a process which “can be very difficult and very frustrating.”[9]

Current events in the Korean peninsula do nothing to achieve the objectives prescribed by Görtemaker to bring the two countries closer. To the contrary, the most recent event in the DMZ reminded those who know the story of German separation well of the defection of Conrad Schumann, the East German soldier, who on August 15, 1961 jumped across barbed wire to West Berlin, and into freedom. Does the defection by a North Korean soldier indicate the unity between North and South Korea is as far away as German unity was in the 1960s? As the German example shows, reunification comes quickly, and unexpectedly. If there is anything to learn from the German model, it is to aid the process of unification as much as possible. Escalating tensions by threatening nuclear war, and completing fly-overs with bombers, is not the most conducive to unity.


[1] Stefan Niederhafner, “The Challenges of Reunification: Why South Korea Cannot Follow Germany’s Strategy.” Korea Observer 44, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 250.

[2] Myoung-kyu Kang and Helmut Wagner, Germany and Korea: Lessons in Unification (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1995).

[3] In the German context, the end of division between East and West Germany in 1989 is referred to as reunification (ger: Wiedervereinigung) so as to distinguish this union from the previous unification under Bismarck in the 19th century, when German states united to form the German Reich in 1871. In the Korean case the terms are interchangeable, and are at times referred to as unification or reunification.

[4] Wagner, 6 and Tania Branigan, “Korean Unification: Dreams of Unity Fade into Past for Young South Koreans,” The Guardian, May 27, 2013, accessed December 05, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/27/south-north-korea-unification.

[5] Wagner, 4.

[6] Wagner, 5.

[7] Lee (published in Kang and Wagner’s collection), 246.

[8] Lee (published in Kang and Wagner’s collection), 257.

[9] Görtemaker (published in Kang and Wagner’s collection), 363.