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Reunification: The German Comparison

BUSAN, South Korea – Last week I participated in a scenario to map out possible futures of Kim Jong Il’s sudden death. My best guess is that what we will see is a military dictatorship with Kim III (Jong-Un) as a familial, yet much reduced, figurehead. But one idea that is always floating around in the background is that major regime junctures in the North might lead to break down and then reunification. President Lee has taken recently to saying that South Korea should prepare for imminent reunification, and one of my favorite North Korea experts thinks unification is likely in the next five years.  I don’t see that actually.

Nevertheless, the most obvious parallel for trying to map Korean unification will work is the German case in 1989/90. I have written about this before, but the following compare and contrast is more complete. For Asian readers in search of a good walk-through of Germany’s experience with division, here is a good place to start.(FYI: I lived in Germany for 4 years in the early 90s and speak German. I recall debating this stuff a lot.)

Similarities between the German and Korean divisions:


a. Both nations were divided artificially. Both sides believe the ‘2 states, 1 people’ outcome is temporary. All 4 states faced a permanent constitutional legitimacy crisis, because the obvious question is why these separated states existed at all. As such, all states divided by the Cold War were intensely competitive with the other. Outracing each other economically, militarily,  even at the Olympics, became central to proving who was the ‘real’ Korea, Germany, Vietnam, China, etc. Mutual coexistence is basically impossible; each has a limited time window to race the other into international legitimacy. As one or the other pulls away in global opinion – as it becomes ‘the’ Korea or ‘the’ Germany in places like airports or hotel signage, popular movies, CNN, etc. –  it will become ever harder to justify maintaining the division.

b. When comparing North Korea and East Germany of the past, both are communist with all the attendant problems of  20th century ‘real existing socialism.’ They are domestically illegitimate outside their own elites. Those elites are a corrupted ‘red bourgeoisie’ for whom regime ideology became a fig leaf for oligarchy and luxury. Neither can produce anything close to the quality and quantity of goods necessary to keep their populations happy – populations further disenchanted by what they see on the other side. Both have a nasty secret police. They are both noticeably poorer than the westernized competitor, and this creates unending pressure on the government to change. All these factors create a disconsolate citizenry that would push out the regime if given the chance. Hence, any manner of internal democratization or liberalization would end the regime as we know it. In the end, both communist half-states had to seal off their borders to prevent exodus; they are national prisons.

c. Underperformance vis the westernized competitor slowly takes its toll internationally. The competitions led to hyper-militarization in the communist half, which only worsens the performance gap between both sides.  Perhaps the best marker of the communist failure after a few decades was that West Germany simply became Germany and South Korea just Korea. To indicate the communist half in everyday speech, one had to affix the directional adjective, the implication being that East Germany and North Korea were somehow dead-ends of history. By the 1980s, both North Korea and East Germany had effectively lost the race of point 1a above; South Korea and West Germany became “Korea” and “Germany.”

d. The westernized, ‘Free World’ half of the nation is a wealthy, functioning democracy that has otherwise joined the world – technologies, markets, and institutions (IMF, WTO, etc). This makes the communist half look even more like a basket case. Gradual but sustained wealth and demographic accumulation have dramatically altered the balance against the communist half. The free half also regularly receives communist refugees voting with their feet.


a. South Korea and West Germany are clearly supported by the US and its wealthy democratic allies. Both belong to the American/democratic alliance system and enjoy the widespread moral legitimacy that comes from that. They are net contributors to their own defence, clearly outclassing the communist half strategically.

b. North Korea and East Germany are practically client states of a communist behemoth, on whom they are extremely dependent. The patrons (China and the USSR) of both find them troublesome and expensive. Both field an military based around obsolete WWII assumptions of massed infantry and armor formations. Neither can win a conflict with the other half; the economic gap compounds the military gap. The patron regularly debates the merits of cutting the client loose.

c. The neighborhood got used to the division and kinda likes it (especially Japan and France, although no one will say that publicly). There isn’t a lot of impetus from outsiders to end the split. Russia couldn’t care less if Korea unites. Like the French and British on Germany, the Japanese public will come around once they see it on TV. Once we see crying Koreans tearing down the barbwire fences of the DMZ, like we saw Germans hammering the Berlin Wall, no one will stand in its way. But until then, don’t expect anyone else to do much beyond pro forma boilerplate.

Kim Il Sung and Erich Honecker: Sigh, don’t you miss the golden days? —- no, me neither.
(The placard reads: ‘GDR and DPRK tightly bound in friendship’ – for tyranny and
poorly-made men’s wear)

-Tune in next week for a continuation of the series.

-You can read more from Dr. Kelly on his Asian Security Blog

-Read Five Questions with B.R. Myer's here.





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