Many Koreans last week came to know, or were reminded of, a German word that may have been obliterated from the memory of most Germans.
In a parliamentary audit session, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said that Seoul was looking into the feasibility of adopting the Freikauf model as a tool to bring back South Koreans held in North Korea. The policy, which means “buying freedom,” was implemented by West Germany during the Cold War era to secure the release of East German political prisoners to enable them to come to the West.
The minister made the remark in response to a question from an opposition party lawmaker about whether the government intended to introduce a “Korean version of Freikauf” for the repatriation of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees detained by Pyongyang for decades.
Most commentators here have given little credence to the will of the Seoul government to push for the policy, which they note is implausible under the current circumstances surrounding inter-Koreans relations. The Unification Ministry was said to have suggested adopting the Freikauf method in its report to the transition committee for then President-elect Park Geun-hye in January. But no serious debate has since been made about whether and how to apply the model to the situation between the two Koreas.
With inter-Korean ties strained after a brief sign of thaw following a deal to reopen a joint factory park in the North last month, it may appear somewhat out of tune to address the formula likely to be shunned by the oppressive regime in Pyongyang. But the renewed interest in the German model is meaningful at least in bolstering our dwindled attention to hundreds of South Korean POWs and abductees and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in the North.
Continuous efforts should be made to foster the necessary conditions for putting the policy in practice. What is important is that this process must be carried out in a clandestine way.
West Germany brought in 33,755 jailed East German dissidents by compensating for their release in cash or kind from 1963 to 1989 when the Berlin Wall was broken down. It should be a lesson for us that the substance of the Freikauf policy was known to ordinary Germans only after German reunification.