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[Editorial] Lessons From German Reunification

Posted November. 09, 2009 08:49,   


Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down. The people of West and East Germany became one, and both countries reunified Oct. 3 the following year. The fall of the Berlin Wall catalyzed a tectonic shift in Europe, leading many countries in Eastern Europe to move toward democracy and culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Seeing such dramatic changes, British historian Eric Hobsbawm said the era of extremism that began with World War I finally came to an end.

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is an occasion for people of both Koreas to reflect on the stark reality of their national division.

Since reunification, Germany has healed its deep scars left by its decades of division. The Halle Institute for Economic Research said the wealth gap between the former East Germany and West Germany is rapidly narrowing. In 1991, per capita income in the former East Germany was a third of West Germany’s. The figure has since risen to 70 percent and is expected to reach 80 percent within a decade. People in the former East Germany enjoy freedom and protection of human rights.

Though 1.3 trillion euro was spent to rebuild East Germany, the investment ultimately benefited the whole country. German reunification was not only a sudden gift but also the result of steady preparation. No leader in either Germany believed that allowing East Germans free passage to West Germany would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventual reunification. Then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl helped both sides reunify by persuading the Soviet Union, Britain, and France, which opposed German reunification at the time.

Continued personnel exchanges and cooperation between both Germanys revived the perception of being one nation, and this also laid the groundwork for reunification. Before reunification, five million East Germans moved to West Germany, and 500,000 West Germans settled down in East Germany. Exchange of letters and phone calls were allowed and East Germans had access to West German broadcasting, enabling them to build a consensus with West Germans. These bilateral exchanges played a decisive role in raising the political awareness of East Germans, who went on to stage protests demanding freedom of expression and rights to access information and free travel.

In Korea, the Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations sought to learn from German unification by drawing up their own integration plans. The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo administrations, the two left-leaning governments that succeeded them, prioritized devising a policy toward North Korea while putting the reunification question on the backburner.

The road to Korean reunification is increasingly growing rockier. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il seeks to transfer power to his son while confronting the international community with nuclear weapons. The North’s population of 24 million, brainwashed by their totalitarian government, is struggling with starvation. In the early 1990s, South Korea’s national income was six to eight times that of the North, but that gap is now 38 times. This has raised fears over the South’s potential financial burden in case of Korean reunification.

Like in Germany, the Korean Peninsula could also see an unexpected reunification. East Germany’s last Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere told reporters, “South Korea will be in big trouble if North Korea sees an abrupt collapse. Ironically, South Korea could feel the need to erect a wall to stem an influx of North Korean refugees.” Indeed, steady preparation is badly needed to minimize the costs and adverse effects of Korean reunification.

The economic gap between the two Koreas is far wider than that of the two Germanys before reunification. South Korea’s gross national income is 38 times that of the North and trade volume 384 times more. Worse, the disparity is worsening with time. The only way for North Korea to stabilize its people’s welfare is to take the path to peaceful reunification.