Fire the Speech Writers: An East German’s Perspective on President Park’s Dresden Speech

Following up on Aidan Foster-Carter’s analysis of ROK President Park Geun-hye’s Dresden speech, let me add a few subjective thoughts, since the event took place in my home region. All in all, this speech is a remarkably frank, but not necessarily a very sensitive document, particularly from an East German perspective. The subtle messages it sends to North Korea are not overly cooperative either. If I were President Park, I would start looking for better speech writers.

Location and Audience

As an East German, I really and without any irony appreciate the fact that President Park decided to speak in East Germany. But I have no idea why Dresden was chosen. It is the capital of the federal state of Saxony, and a beautiful city at the river Elbe, full of Baroque buildings from the time of King August the Strong. Dresden is also a symbol for the inhumanity of war, as this cultural center without much military significance was burnt to ashes by three days of indiscriminate area bombings in February 1945. But what happened in Dresden regarding German unification?

In Berlin, the Wall was opened by accident on November 9, 1989. Fair enough; that explains Kim Dae-jung’s choice as a venue for his speech in 2000, although I found it regrettable that he went to Free University (in West Berlin). A location in the East (for example, Humboldt University) or at the former border (Brandenburg Gate, or Bornholm Bridge) would have been nicer.

President Park had alternatives. In Leipzig, one hour’s drive west of Dresden, the first Monday demonstration on October 9, 1989 marked the beginning of East Germany’s peaceful revolution that led to unification less than a year later. That would have been a good place. I admit, Leipzig is my home town, so my view is perhaps biased. But there are other options, for example Weimar, the city of Goethe. Willy Brandt, then the Chancellor of West Germany, famously waived to an excited crowd from the balcony of the Hotel Elephant in March 1970 on the occasion of first ever inner-German summit.[1] That was a true landmark event of reconciliation and trust building. But Dresden…

The official explanation for that choice: Because Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor, gave a speech there in December 1989. Alright then, that Kohl speech. Some die-hard revisionists still say with bitterness that this is the moment when he stole the revolution. He told East Germans that if they want the Deutschmark, they must want unification too (rather than indigenous reforms) and thus vote for his Christian Democrats (CDU) in the March 1990 parliamentary elections. A bit blunt perhaps, but it worked.

Speaking of those elections: among the crowd invited to listen to President Park’s speech was a certain Lothar de Maizière, whom I never met in person but who seems to be a very intelligent and decent man based on his writings and public appearances in the media. He faced a tough task in 1990: negotiating the unification treaty as the representative of East Germany under hellish time pressure and without much political experience. A lawyer, a devout Christian (like Chancellor Angela Merkel and current German President Hans-Joachim Gauck, whom President Park also met during her visit) and leader of the East German branch of the CDU, he was elected as the last GDR Prime Minister in March 1990, with massive help from the Western branch of the party and Chancellor Kohl. His cousin, Thomas de Maizière, born in West Germany, is currently Minister of the Interior in the cabinet of Angela Merkel.

It is interesting to know that back in 1990, Thomas de Maizière (CDU West) was the advisor to Lothar de Maizière (CDU East) for the unification treaty negotiations. Just think about it: Side W and side E negotiate a merger, and the main advisor to the leader of E is a politician from side W. Leader E is also from the same political party as leader W and has received W’s massive support to get elected. It is hard not to find this fascinating. The North Korean leadership will wonder if the South Korean president plans to offer them the same kind of fairness and impartiality in case of Korean unification negotiations.

De Maizière’s predecessor as East German Prime Minister was Hans Modrow. He came to power after Honecker was ousted in October 1989 and his successor-turned-Brutus, Egon Krenz,[2] was sacked by his comrades just a few weeks later in November 1989. It was hoped that Modrow would be an East German Gorbachev, but he did not have a chance. Events had by then become hyper-dynamic, and the focus shifted from reform to unification. He tried hard, but there was little he could do. Much has been speculated about a different course of events had he been chosen as Honecker’s successor in October, but this is one of those useless “what if” discussions. But returning to President Park’s speech, it s useful to know that Modrow had, until 1989, been First Secretary of the East German Communist Party (SED) in—guess where—yes, in Dresden.

However, I did not see Modrow’s name on President Park’s guest list. Perhaps because he is still a member of Die Linke, a leftist party that got 8.6 percent of the votes for the Bundestag in 2013 and is currently the third strongest (democratically elected) political force in Germany after the CDU and the Social Democrats. Twenty-five years after the collapse of East Germany, they are still seen as “Commies” by those whose Cold War indoctrination has survived unaltered until present day. And I suppose the last thing President Park is looking forward to is to see how a democratic Korean political party, built on the foundations of the Korean Workers’ Party, wins a significant number of seats in a unified Korean parliament. Demographics suggest that this “problem” might actually be twice as big in Korea. The relation between North and South Koreans is 1:2; that between East and West Germans was 1:4.

In any case, Hans Modrow is an interesting man who is very symbolic of the complicated and conflicting nature of the German unification process. He is a controversial person, no doubt about that. He was a part of the old system, but also represented East Germany’s last chance to reform itself from within, rather than being integrated into West Germany. He was a member of unified Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, until 1994. People like him are disturbing proof that the old elite were not homogeneous. True: all were pro-system; but many were, at the same time, reformist and progressive. So yes, indeed; why invite Modrow? Better to get rid of all this inconvenient ballast of the past. Things ought to be dichotomous and easy to understand. East Germany’s history starts in 1990; before then was simply the Dark Age. Just in case the millions of North Korean Party members are wondering what their place will be after unification…

Praise the West, Neglect the East

The contents of the speech were in accordance with the choice of location and company. Take the reference to the good old days of German-Korean relations: “The Korean president who visited Germany at the time felt that Germany’s rise from the ashes of the Second World War and its Miracle on the Rhine were feats that could be replicated in Korea.” Yes, it makes good sense to recall her father’s visit and the good aspects[3] of relations between West Germany and South Korea in a speech held in Germany. But he has never been in Dresden or in East Germany. Talking extensively (mentioned four times) about the miracle at the Rhine (West Germany, 1950s) and the Korean nurses and miners who came to (West) Germany (1960s and 1970s) as proof of this long-standing bilateral relationship is a bit, how shall I say, insensitive when you grab the mike in Dresden, the capital of Saxony in East Germany.

The local representative did not mind, I suppose. Hans Mueller-Steinhagen, the Rector of the Technical University Dresden, who stood next to President Park, comes from Karlsruhe (West Germany). Coincidence, perhaps, and there is nothing wrong about the fact that the Rector of an East German university comes from the West. But given the context of her speech, it is hard not to see this as deeply symbolic, because a quarter of a century after the takeover—oh forgive me, unification—the elite in East Germany still often speak West German dialects. A disclaimer: I do believe German unification was a great gift to us Germans, in particular, in the East. I even think that the way it proceeded was the only possible way under the circumstances. And I know about many cases of extraordinary Western generosity, on individual and institutional levels. But be it right or wrong: the feeling of colonization was and is strong, and a sensitive politician (or her advisors) would understand and consider that.

So, one hopes that native East Germans were standing too far away, did not listen too closely, or simply lacked the energy to be frustrated. Otherwise they might have got the absurd impression that in President Park’s view, their lives were sad and worthless until 1990, and that only afterwards did the utterly ugly and desperate city of Dresden develop into something beautiful and noteworthy. “The years since unification have seen Dresden emerge from a backwater into a world-class city known for its advanced science and technology.” Who cares that the renovated landmark opera house (Semperoper) was opened in 1985, that the TV and the LCD were invented in Dresden before unification. All of this must have been an accident; how could it be conceivable that something positive or successful was done in the “backwater” of East Germany? Or in the starving stone-age gulag state of North Korea?

The focus on West Germany is particularly regrettable since there would have been a lot to say about German-Korean relations that relates directly and positively to Saxony’s capital and its people. In and around Dresden, several hundred Korean children who lost their parents in the Korean War were raised for a few years in orphanages in the early and mid 1950s. Afterwards, hundreds of North Korean students graduated from Dresden’s Technical University. Does the fact that they come from the “wrong” part of Korea mean that they are not worth mentioning?

In short, I believe that President Park is herself, no doubt, well-meaning. But as an East German with an interest in Korea, I felt her speech suffered from a number of serious problems that reflected a lack of understanding of history, of the people and their sensitivities and, perhaps most importantly, of the message it sent to North Korea.

First, the location was chosen in what, at first glance, appears to be a reference to East Germany, but in fact, marks a Helmut Kohl speech that finalized the transformation of the indigenous East German reform movement into a pan-German unification campaign. The North Korean leadership reads: if you risk reform, this will be your end. We will try to use that opportunity in the same way as Kohl did.

Second, her entourage reflects the focus of President Park on West Germans. The North Korean elite reads: You are welcome to support me, and perhaps I will even bless you with my attention, but only if you play according to my rules. The rest of the elite will be ignored—if you are lucky. In any case, get ready to make room for South Korean bosses.

Third, the speech emphasized relations between Korea and Germany but focused entirely on South and West. East German-North Korean relations were ignored. North Koreans read: After unification, we will treat the North as being of secondary importance, an accident, a shame. Korea’s history after 1945 is South Korea’s history.

Fourth, East Germany was displayed as a miserable place that only saw the light after unification. North Koreans read: None of your achievements in culture, technology or elsewhere will be recognized. No matter what you accomplished, you did so under the wrong conditions, so it is worthless.

Regarding the current ROK government’s attitude towards the DPRK, the Dresden speech was very revealing. What a signal to the North Koreans on all levels, and what an intriguing way of trust building. I doubt that it has helped increase North Korean enthusiasm for fast, Seoul-led unification. Ironically, the speech rather might have strengthened Kim Jong Un’s rule. Unless that was intentional: fire the speech-writer.


[1] I need to correct myself: In March 1970 Willy Brandt drove through Weimar, but it was actually the Hotel “Erfurter” Hof in Erfurt where he famously waved from the balcony. The “Elephant” in Weimar was the place of the press reception. Hat tip to Michael Haenel for pointing this out.

[2] Krenz was for many years Honecker’s designated successor. In October 1989, after receiving Moscow’s blessings, Krenz turned against his mentor in a kind of palace revolt within the Politburo and kicked him out of office in government and party. Honecker in his memoirs recollected this with great bitterness, which is a bit ironic since he himself had replaced Walter Ulbricht in a similar way in 1971.

[3] To be sure, there was a little bit of rain amidst all the sunshine. In 1967, the South Korea CIA abducted 17 Koreans from West Germany and West Berlin in 1967, including composer Yun Isang and his wife. This triggered a massive diplomatic crisis, and three South Korean diplomats were expelled.

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