Why German Unification Is Not a Model for Korean Unification

For decades, many Koreans have viewed German unification as a model for the future of a divided Korean peninsula. However, there are differences between the two that need to be understood, both to inform current policy and provide valuable lessons for the future.

iStock_000025738343_XXXLargeGerman unification has been a success story that Koreans interested in unification often aspire to emulate. The process was peaceful and democratic—reflecting the wishes of the East German people—and it resulted in the establishment of a free state based on a market economy. Today’s united Germany is a leading economic, security and humanitarian player in Europe. But South Korea is not West Germany and North Korea is not East Germany. That reality may mean that Korean unification under the German model would be nearly impossible to achieve given the current circumstances.

Lessons from German Unification

1. Win Hearts and Minds Within the Competing Nation

In 1969, then-Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) started a policy of seeking “change through contacts” (Wandel druch Annaehrung) toward the East. Egon Bahr, Brandt’s Berlin spokesman and later his chancellery’s secretary of state, said that “unification is not a single action but a process with many steps and stops.”[1] In particular, he stressed that seeking to isolate or contain East Germany would not bring about the regime’s collapse, but only increase the suffering of its people and deepen the chasm of division. Therefore, West Germany aimed to improve East German living conditions and achieve the greatest number of contacts between the countries that East Germany would allow. Successive liberal and conservative governments pursued this policy, which East Germany welcomed. Ultimately, the strategy increased East Germany’s dependence on West Germany while boosting the West’s leverage against its socialist counterpart.

The years prior to unification were marked by active exchanges and cooperation not only between the two German governments, but also between their people. They could send mail and gifts by post, and in the late 1980s, Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s conservative government persuaded the East German regime to allow more of its people to visit West Germany. As a result, East Germans discovered the West’s higher living standards and began to complain about conditions under socialism: their regime suppressed dissent while failing to deliver daily necessities, clean air and adequate transportation.

Meanwhile, decades of high-level contacts between the two Germanys aided in negotiations to resolve the 1989-1990 crisis that ended in unification. By this point, the two sides had held ministerial or vice-ministerial exchanges in 22 areas, including transportation, legal cooperation and the economy. In August 1989, Chancellor Kohl and East German leader Erich Honecker exchanged letters concerning the massive exodus of East Germans then taking place. The written correspondence was followed by ministerial discussions, and a December 1989 summit meeting in Dresden. This informed the international community, including the four victorious powers of World War II, that the two Germanys were trying to peacefully resolve the East German crisis and could achieve unification based on self-determination.

In short, an unwavering engagement policy allowed West Germany to win the hearts of elite and ordinary East Germans. When a window of opportunity opened to the East German people in 1989, they decided to “shift their loyalties, expectation, and political activities” to West Germany.[2] East Germany held its first free general election in March 1990, and about 48 percent of East German voters supported the Alliance for Germany, which was committed to a rapid unification with West Germany. On August 23, 1990, the newly elected parliament passed a resolution declaring that the five East German states would enter the effective area of the Basic Law (Beitritt zum Geltungsbereich des Grundgesetzes) of the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990. Thus, the East Germans played a key role in Germany’s democratic and peaceful unification.

2. Maximize Backing for Unification Among the Major Powers

As West Germany improved relations with East Germany and other socialist countries, it maintained a rock-solid alliance with the US-led Western bloc that later helped to facilitate the unification process.

This stance sometimes required prioritizing relations with Western powers over its growing ties with East Germany. One such case arose in the late 1970s, as the Soviet Union deployed tactical nuclear missiles in East Germany and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In December 1979, Chancellor Schmidt’s liberal SPD government stood with the West by backing NATO’s Double-Track Decision: the alliance would seek to negotiate mutual limits on medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe while threatening to deploy US Pershing II missiles in Western Europe should the negotiations fail. The talks ultimately did not gain traction, and deployment of the US missiles began in 1983 under Kohl, Schmidt’s successor. Kohl recalled, “Without the deployment, U.S.-German relations would have been hurt badly, probably putting NATO alliance at risk.”[3]

As the East German regime neared collapse in 1989 and unification began to appear possible, Kohl reaffirmed West Germany’s relationship with the Western powers by insisting that any united Germany would remain within NATO. The position, which he took in defiance of strong East German and Soviet opposition, earned strong US backing that proved crucial to the unification effort’s success. The administration of US President George H.W. Bush extended its full support, senior US and West German officials consulted closely on strategy for the two-plus-four talks on external issues involving unification, and President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker persuaded their Soviet counterparts to support Kohl’s unification efforts.

Why the German Model Will Not Work on the Korean Peninsula

West Germany and South Korea share several features that would benefit a potential unification bid by Seoul: both were free and democratic states with market economies, both were much stronger than their competitors and both were allied with the United States and other Western democratic states. But several crucial factors distinguish the Koreas from Germany.

1. Korea’s Fratricidal Past

Little historically rooted enmity existed between East and West Germany prior to unification. A united Germany fought in World War II, and after Stalin’s death in 1953 East Germans staged a revolt that their country’s Soviet occupiers had to put down by force. When Soviet troops did not similarly intervene in the massive urban demonstrations of October 1989, East Germans were emboldened to fight their communist dictators, and their military refused to confront the demonstrators with force.

By contrast, the Korean War generated a level of enmity that persists across the peninsula to this day. North Korea has stoked hostility toward the South among generations of its citizens by insisting that Seoul initiated the 1950-1953 conflict. The DPRK’s military appears steadfastly loyal to the Kim regime, and it is unlikely to exercise the restraint of the East German army during a domestic revolt or incursion by any foreign force, including troops from the South. North Korean soldiers have been trained and indoctrinated to defend their commander-in-chief, Kim Jong Un, with all available means, even risking their lives. It is not clear how the general populations will react in event of a people’s revolution. In the beginning they would fear possible military crackdown, but as balances tip for the revolution, people might act differently.

2. South Korean Policy Divides

Throughout the Korean War, ideological adversaries killed each other in vast numbers. The enduring legacy of this bloodshed is a deep-seated suspicion of opposing ideologies. Liberal and conservative South Korean leaders fail to engage with North Korean officials in a consistent manner, and political circles are so fractured by region, blood and schools that consensus or compromise can hardly be achieved in the country’s legislature.

West Germany’s political culture was friendlier toward the prospect of unification. Its political parties were more open to compromise and less ideological than their South Korean counterparts. This has much to do with different history and political systems, including their election systems. In Germany, it is almost impossible for a party to win a majority of seats in the Lansdestag or Bundestag election, and a winning party must compromise with other parties to form a coalition government. In Korea, however, a party can dominate all seats in an electoral district. In the recent April parliamentary election, a conservative party won all seats in North Kyungsang province, while a liberal party won all seats in Kwangju city. The Korean election system has not been conducive for overcoming regional conflict or animosity.

 3. North Korean Information Restrictions

By the crisis of the late 1980s, West Germany’s decades-old policy of engaging the East had achieved significant gains. More than 80 percent of East Germans watched West German television—one could say jokingly that Germany had already been united during evening prime time—and East Germans frequently traveled to West Germany and neighboring socialist countries.

North Koreans have far less access to information that may contradict their regime’s propaganda claims. Typical North Koreans rarely travel to Pyongyang, let alone foreign countries, and North Korea restricts television broadcasts to a few state channels. While its people can obtain imported films and dramas through black markets, they must do so at significant personal risk. Modern technology offers little help: North Koreans cannot open websites outside their national intranet, and their cell phones cannot access social networking services that would help them to organize.

4. China’s Reservations Over Korean Unification

While a Korean unification effort would not require the blessing of the four victorious World War II powers as in Germany, it would still need diplomatic and financial support from key outsiders.[4] Most notably, such an effort would face a significant challenge in securing Chinese support, given Beijing’s national interest in maintaining buffer countries along its borders. Aside from the danger of an influx of North Korean refugees, more important to Beijing will be preventing the movement of US forces up to its border and the establishment of a united Korea allied to Washington on its border.

Policy Recommendations

The differences described above suggest not only that Korean unification will be more difficult to achieve than in Germany, but also that the German experience may not be a relevant model unless South Korea recognizes these differences and alters its course. South Korea’s current emphasis on unification over the development of inter-Korean relations can be compared to laying bridge panels without building supporting columns below. For now, South Korea must focus more on strengthening its internal and inter-Korean capabilities to achieve unification than on pursuing diplomatic efforts intended to achieve such an end directly. Recognizing these differences, steps Seoul might take in the future could include the following.

1. Establish a Consistent South Korean Unification Policy

South Korean governments have consistently endorsed the “national commonwealth” unification formula announced by President Roh Tae-woo in September 1989, following consultations with ruling and opposition party leaders. However, liberal and conservative administrations have implemented unification policy inconsistently by pivoting repeatedly between emphases on outreach and pressure.

Their differing strategies have been based, in part, on different views of North Korea’s future. Working from the possibility that the regime’s collapse was imminent, ROK Presidents Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak emphasized preparation for unification rather than the development of inter-Korean relations. On the other hand, presidents Roh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun believed that North Korea would change gradually, ideally following the Chinese or Vietnamese models. Thus, their policies focused on improving inter-Korean relations in a manner they hoped would create a favorable atmosphere for North Korea to change its system, increasing chances of eventual unification. A peace mechanism and a range of agreements and cooperation between the North and South, they believed, would ultimately amount to a de facto unification.

These differing approaches are also partly a result of partisan political interests in South Korea. Conservatives support pressure and containment as means to rally their political base and marginalize liberal adversaries, while liberals tend to argue that such policies kowtow to a US policy of isolating North Korea and heighten inter-Korean tension for domestic political gain.

To move toward a consistent, bipartisan unification policy, South Korea could establish a “unification-friendly” political system through reforms to promote consensus and conciliation. The current “winner takes all” system gives rise to a zero-sum game in politics, and that situation could be remedied by revising elections to prevent the domination of electoral districts by single parties. South Korea should seriously consider introducing a German-type electoral system in which parties rarely win district majorities and generally must govern as coalitions.

Agreement on a new election system is a tall order for South Korea’s political parties, of course, and both lawmakers and the government should redouble efforts under the current political system to formulate a durable unification policy. One option is to achieve backing within the National Assembly for a proposed five-year plan and implementation program for developing ties with North Korea, steps prescribed but never successfully executed under the 2005 Inter-Korean Relations Act.

All of South Korea’s political parties feasibly could support a plan containing at least three basic elements: sustained dialogue, humanitarian assistance and a strong alliance with the United States. If future South Korean governments pursue a coherent policy promoting these elements, mutual trust and a sense of community will be enhanced between the two Koreas, ultimately increasing the likelihood of a democratic and peaceful unification.

2. Maintain Inter-Korean Diplomatic Channels

To extract assistance or political concessions from South Korea and other countries, Pyongyang usually sets preconditions for participating in talks or proposes them after creating a crisis or another source of tension. For this reason, South Korean opponents of dialogue often gain the upper hand by arguing that there should be “no talks for talks’ sake.” Nevertheless, South Korea should maintain open dialogue channels in public or in secret, particularly as the situation in North Korea grows foggy and unpredictable. In the words of Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany’s last prime minister, “Even sworn enemies would not shoot each other while they are talking.”

3. Provide Unconditional Humanitarian Assistance to North Korea

Humanitarian assistance should aim to facilitate future democratic unification. Seoul’s North Korea policy, just as West Germany’s policy, should be geared to win the hearts of the North Koreans in order to lay the groundwork for the future. If unification becomes possible, it will only happen if North Korean citizens decide to be unified with South Korea when given the chance. The North Korean regime has spared no effort to encourage hostility toward South Korea and the United States among its citizens, but by providing consistent humanitarian aid, Seoul can help to transform such hostility into affinity. North Koreans will grow less hostile toward the South Korean government, and they may interpret the high quality of South Korean products as yet more evidence that South Koreans enjoy a higher standard of living.

Lee Myung-bak’s administration discontinued large-scale rice and fertilizer assistance in 2008, allegedly over concerns that such aid might be diverted to feed the military and consequently to prop up the Kim regime. Furthermore, the Lee government raised the bar for humanitarian assistance by South Korean NGOs, which were allowed to deliver only selected items for even vulnerable portions of the population, including children. This is largely due to concerns about possible diversion to the military, which can hardly be confirmed.[5]

4. Strengthen International Support for Unification

South Korea must strengthen its traditional alliances with the United States and Japan, while improving relations with China and Russia. No one would deny that the friendliest ally in support of unification is the United States. Some experts suggest South Korea should seek balances in its relations with the US and China, but I disagree. Without strong support from the US, it would not be easy to gain support from China either.

It is no less important to persuade neighboring countries that Korean unification would satisfy their national interests. To this end, it would be beneficial to increase public diplomacy by creating an advisory group for unification, either multilateral or bilateral, composed of former senior officials or celebrities from the abovementioned four powers.


Conditions in East and West Germany differed significantly from those on today’s Korean peninsula, a reality with ramifications for any effort to unify the two Koreas. While replicating the German experience would be extremely difficult without the recommended actions, these steps alone would be very hard to implement in South Korea’s current political environment. And they represent only a beginning in emulating the German model.

In assessing Seoul’s options, one cannot overstate the importance of China’s interest in maintaining the North Korean state as a bulwark against potentially hostile foreign forces in the South. As long as China provides North Korea with the necessities to sustain it, the North Korean regime will not collapse, despite the wishes of South Korean conservatives. Because containment policies will not change Pyongyang’s behavior without Chinese support, South Korea’s only realistic option is to stress engagement with North Korea through sustained dialogue and humanitarian assistance.


[1] Egon Bahr, “Wandel durch Annaeherung,” Speech, Tutzing Christian Academy, July 15, 1963, http://web.ev-akademie-tutzing.de/cms/index.php?id=53.

[2] Earnst Haas defined political integration as a “process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations, and political activities toward a new center, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over the preexisting national states.” Dougherty, James and Robert Pfaltzgraff, Jr., Theories of International Cooperation and Integration, 5th ed. (New York: Harper & Row Publisher, 1990), p. 510.

[3] Helmut Kohl, Ich Wollte Deutschlands Einheit, trans. Kim Joo Il, (Seoul: Haenaem, 1998), 26-27.

[4] The four victorious powers, the US, Soviet Union, Great Britain and France reserved rights and responsibilities with regard to entire Germany and Berlin, including unification of Germany and a peace treaty. The two Koreas can accomplish unification when they agree to it, while the two Germany could not decide on their own. Diplomatically, Korea is in much better position than Germany.

[5] Moreover, it should be noted that Article 3 of South Korea’s Constitution gives the South Korean government the legal responsibility for feeding the North since it claims sole representation over the North Korean population. Thus, the North Korean people should be treated as South Korean nationals.

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