They were part of a 20-member delegation led by Christoph Bergner, the federal commissioner responsible for issues relating to the eastern states and ethnic Germans who have returned to Germany from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Why does one send an aircraft loaded with German former revolutionaries and unification experts to a place like South Korea? The short answer: so history will repeat itself. The somewhat longer answer: It was an idea conceived by Kim Chun Sig, South Korea’s deputy unification minister. Korea has been divided since the end of World War II. The communist North has a nuclear weapons program and is supported by Russia and China. The capitalist South is supported by the United States. Korea is the last battlefield of the Cold War, a country that was split in two during the war of ideologies.
Over 60 years after the country was divided, South Koreans would like to see all this change. They have a grand dream of reuniting the two Koreas. Over one year ago, an agreement was reached with the German government to create a commission of experts with a somewhat unwieldy name: the Korean-German Consultation Committee on Reunification. Germany has provided its most experienced specialists from the eastern and western parts of the country, whose job is to explain how one successfully reunites a people. “No country understands our desire to reunite as well as Germany,” says Kim.
The odd thing, though, is that no one has ever had the impression that Korean reunification could be just around the corner — neither over the short or the medium term. Have there been signs of this recently? Glasnost in Pyongyang? There have not been any such signs, neither before nor after the death of Kim Jong Il, who always looked like a dictator invented by Hollywood. North Korea remains an enigma. There’s no other country in the world about which so little is known. Even the South Koreans remain largely in the dark about their neighbor to the north.
“They always have the same questions,” says de Maizière. “It was the same story today. The Koreans basically don’t want unity to cost too much, and I tell them it will cost much more than you can imagine.” Eppelmann nods in agreement. “I’ve realized that the South Koreans are trying to figure out a way for the North Koreans to remain in the North after unification,” says Eppelmann. “The South Koreans were talking about border controls. I’ll be damned! They seriously intend to close the border after the wall has fallen!”
Eppelmann looks as if he has been personally insulted. As a former East German, he naturally tends to feel more of a sense of kinship with the North Koreans.
“I asked them: ‘Do you know what the North Koreans want? What they’re yearning for?’ But the South Koreans don’t know,” says de Maizière. “They say: ‘It’s up to us in the South to solve the unity problem.”
The Ministry of Unification dates back to 1969. Today it lies at the heart of South Korea’s efforts to reunite with the North, and has its headquarters just a 10-minute drive from the conference hotel, right next to the Foreign Ministry. It occupies two stories in an office building and employs 500 people. But what are they actually working on?
“We draw up visions for how Korea could look after reunification. And we look after the North Korean defectors,” says Deputy Unification Minister Kim.
He’s 55 years old and has been working in the ministry for 27 years, in which he has served under some 15 different unification ministers. Kim has been the deputy minister for two months now. He’s gradually worked his way up through the ranks. On the walls there are a few prints depicting Korean waterfalls and mountain landscapes. Kim is sitting in an armchair and speaking softly with his hands folded in front of his stomach. Above all, though, Kim is very, very cautious.
One poorly chosen word could quickly lead to inter-Korean complications. This must have been how West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher also felt in the days leading up to German reunification. Does Kim know Genscher? “Oh yes, of course! Genscher. Schäuble, too. They are famous. I would have invited them to join our commission, but they are very old now, aren’t they?” Kim dips a piece of sugar into his tea. “You see, we need cooperation with Germany. How do we match up the systems? How will the citizens get along with each other? What will happen with the armies? The Germans have done a good job with this. But it could have been better. One always has to be well prepared, just in case it starts.”
And when will it start?
Kim smiles. “I’m sure you will understand that I don’t wish to say anything about that. But I will live to see Korean unification.” But how will it proceed? Is there some kind of a plan?
“We don’t want the North to collapse. Our plan calls for: first creating peace, then cooperation, then a confederation, then unity.” And if the North collapses anyway? What if there is a revolution, as there was in Germany? Will South Korea then open the borders for a reunification?
“That is also a very sensitive question. Let’s put it this way: Perhaps the North Koreans could remain in their homeland, yes? And we will help them.”
South Koreans are probably afraid that they will have to re-educate and finance an entire people — and pay for their dental care — if unification becomes a reality.
“Many young South Koreans are put off by the costs” as well, says Deputy Minister Kim and cites the following figures: Only approximately 35 percent of the 19 to 40-year-olds see reunification as an important political issue.
The desire to unite is continuously ebbing. South Korea’s older generation has long since lost touch with friends and relatives north of the border. The younger generation has never had a chance to meet. Viewed from the South, North Korea is a distant, uninhabitable planet. It’s not even possible to hop across the border for a quick look, as West German schoolchildren used to do on field trips to East Berlin.