The Korea Herald


Acting Speaker Chung, Korea is not Germany

By Yu Kun-ha

Published : May 16, 2012 - 19:56

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Addressing New York’s Korea Society last week, South Korea’s acting National Assembly Speaker, Chung Ui-hwa, argued that today’s South Korea can take a cue from how 1980s West Germany overcame Germany’s Cold War division. To quote verbatim, Chung said, “The (conservative) Christian Democratic Union, under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was not happy with the Socialist Democratic Party’s appeasement toward East Germany.

Nevertheless, the CDU government inherited the policy of Ostpolitik and succeeded in leaving the enduring legacy of German unification.” From this, Chung concludes Seoul should more actively engage Pyongyang to help bring about eventual Korean unification. But to make that connection is a complete misread of late-20th century German history.

East Germany’s collapse had next to nothing to do with the state of inner-German relations. Rather, East Germany fell apart because the Soviet Union chose no longer to back it.

In North Korea’s case, no amount of South Korean engagement, or sunshine, will ever cause it to open up until it knows it can no longer rely on China’s backing. Because without China, which accounts for more than 80 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade and acts as a conduit for its arms sales to Iran, North Korea’s out of business. But again looking at the German example, China knows that no more North Korea means Korean unification, which also means a U.S. ally on its land border. So, China will seek to avoid such a geostrategic zero-sum game loss at all costs.

As an aside, China claims it can’t afford a North Korean collapse, as it would result in a flood of refugees over its border. But this is a complete red herring. Once again, looking at the German example, those wishing to escape East Germany (before the Berlin Wall fell) fled to West Germany via Hungary’s suddenly open border with Austria, or by taking refuge at the West German Embassy in what was then Czechoslovakia. But once the inner-German border was open, East Germans just crossed directly into West Germany.

As a collapsed North Korea implies an open border with South Korea, why then would any North Korean go to China when he or she can just go straight to South Korea? China’s true fear behind a North Korean collapse is not refugees, but rather greater American influence in Asia (especially as it’s already losing friends like Burma).

Sadly, Korea will remain divided until China no longer props up Kim Jong-un’s unelected, murderous, gangster regime and lets Koreans live as one like they deserve. In the meantime, we can take several German pointers as to how Korean unification might unfold once it all goes down. Just not the ones Speaker Chung cites. 

By Sean King

Sean King is senior vice president of Park Strategies ( in New York. ― Ed.