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[Herald Interview] Experts talk history, future of unification

This year marks Korea’s 70th independence anniversary from Japanese colonial rule and division of the Korean Peninsula. Following reconciliatory overtures by Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae at the end of last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended an olive branch by displaying his willingness to hold a summit with the South and improve cross-border ties in his New Year’s address. The Korea Herald interviewed German Ambassador Rolf Mafael and senior researcher Park Young-ho at the Korea Institute for National Unification to gain insights into German reunification, its implication and the future prospects for Korea.

The Korea Herald: This year marks the 25 anniversary of German reunification. Considering the tremendous economic and geopolitical leverage Germany now wields on the international stage, how do you view Germany’s reunification process?

Rolf Mafael: From today’s perspective, German people have good reasons to celebrate their silver jubilee after national reunification was formally completed in October 1990. Our experience has been a tremendous success story both politically and economically, as well as on personal and diplomatic levels. We have taken stock of our achievements and will assess what’s still ahead of us. 

German Ambassador Rolf Mafael (left) and senior researcher Park Young-ho at the Korea Institute for National Unification spoke to The Korea Herald last week about the past, present and future of unification in Germany and Korea. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
German Ambassador Rolf Mafael (left) and senior researcher Park Young-ho at the Korea Institute for National Unification spoke to The Korea Herald last week about the past, present and future of unification in Germany and Korea. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

KH: What were the domestic and foreign conditions that led to reunification?

Mafael: The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 came overnight under very particular circumstances of the Cold War ― Soviet troops in East Germany and NATO troops in West Germany. The possibility of massive waves of East Germans moving to West Germany forced the Soviets to allow the reunification process to unfold. Decisions were made under intense time pressure to seize the “window of opportunity.” It was not the West Germans, but the East Germans who in the end took the decision to reunite. Twenty years of pursuing detente and rapprochement through the Ostpolitik policy gradually lifted the Iron Curtain. Social exchanges and economic cooperation instilled an idea among the East Germans that reunification was good for them.

KH: Do you share the view that Korea’s reunification will be more difficult and painful?

Mafael: There are elements that make Koreas’ reunification more difficult. East and West Germany were separated for only 40 years while the two Koreas have been separated by 70 years; the Iron Curtain was also not completely closed, with many East Germans visiting West Germany and contributing to knowledge about each other; and economic disparities were not as extreme (West Germany’s gross domestic product was about three times that of East Germany; according to estimates, South Korea’s GDP is 40 times greater than North Korea). Politicians made decisions to unify the East and West currencies at an equal rate, which was done politically, not economically. This made the unification process painful and costly. We hope the Koreas will have a softer landing through incremental progress.

KH: Could you highlight the role of political leadership before and after the unification?

Mafael: Political leadership was instrumental throughout the reunification process. Chancellor Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt led 15 years of Ostpolitik diplomacy aimed at defrosting relations with the Eastern Bloc; they risked their own governments for their bold undertaking at the height of the Cold War. After the Berlin Wall came down, Chancellor Helmut Kohl sustained the momentum and people followed his leadership of unity. These leaders convinced people that their leadership was correct.

KH: How did current Chancellor Angela Merkel use her communist background to her advantage?

Mafael: Chancellor Merkel’s life experiences from former East Germany proved to be a great asset in politically and psychologically integrating German people. Merkel has valorized freedom and democracy in her foreign policies and statecraft; ardently supported free market and united Europe; and used her instincts to disallow parts of society from being left behind. The decisions her government took in the beginning of legislative period last year, concerning minimum wages and retirement allowances, reflect our core values of social responsibilities. Our current President Joachim Gauck is also from former East Germany. Together Merkel and Gauck have proven that political unification has been successful.

KH: How were political, economic and social integration achieved?

Mafael: Political integration has been completed today as the Linke Left Party, which succeeded the former communist party from East Germany, has participated in politics, particularly at the state level. Economic integration was expected to be completed within 30 years, but there are still disparities, with Germany’s east falling behind the west in terms of industrial output, economic participation and unemployment rate. Socially and psychologically, those in their 30s and above lost a part of their identity and developed nostalgia called the Ostalgie. This has not been an issue for the younger generations born after 1989. Social integration for older generations will last throughout their lifetime.

KH: How did former East Germans adapt to new life in new Germany?

Mafael: After reunification, there was a euphoric sense of freedom and liberty. East Germans also enjoyed the consumer paradise and wanted to profit from it. But reunification didn’t immediately bring material prosperity. It was equally difficult for them to accept the reality of losing jobs and welfare benefits once guaranteed by the state. The East German economy, as well as those of other communist countries, broke down abruptly in the first three years after the reunification. It took another 10 years until the Hartz reform plan ― targeting labor relations and fiscal policies ― in 2003 that German economy became competitive again.

KH: How do you view the Dresden Declaration by President Park Geun-hye?

Mafael: Germany supports Korea’s peaceful reunification agenda. President Park’s declaration in Dresden showed a constructive way forward toward the goal. You cannot cooperate in the absence of trust; you need to move from small to big steps and facilitate economic and personal exchanges.

KH: Pyongyang recently showed signs of improving relations this year. What does 2015 mean for inter-Korean relations and national unification efforts?

Park: The gestures of peace offensive resulted from both sides’ needs. For President Park Geun-hye, despite the popularity of her Trust-building Process initiative, her government has not shown substantive results in improving ties with North Korea. For North Korea, leader Kim Jong-un just broke out of three years of national mourning after the death of his father, late Kim Jong-il, and charted a course of independent leadership. To maintain the dual track of nuclear and economic development, Pyongyang must improve ties with Seoul to secure financial aid. It is also trying to mend fences with the South as its relations with the U.S have deteriorated following sanctions.

KH: Will North Korea give up its nuclear arsenal if international community puts greater pressure? Why have the Six-Party Talks been ineffective in bringing about nuclear disarmament?

Park: Nuclear weapons are dictators’ ace in the hole, guaranteeing their hold onto power and survival ― they will not give up on it. But we cannot allow their nuclear capacities to multiply either. The approach so far tackled nuclear disarmament singularly without engaging in comprehensive strategies. We need a sweeping approach to change North Korea’s society and economy and integrate it with the outside world. The elitist worldview must change. The Six-Party Talks, despite its lukewarm results, is still a framework of cooperation. It has failed to denuclearize North Korea in part because of diverging interests of participating members in areas outside of their common objective of denuclearization. Seoul and Washington have yet the kind of “strategic trust” like between the Capitol Hill and Westminster, explained by Henry Kissinger.

KH: How can South Korea effectively pressure North Korea to improve its grave human rights record?

Park: Human rights entail political, economic and social rights. Pressuring Pyongyang on universal human rights through international bodies such as the United Nations should not be curtailed. We should link our demands with concrete humanitarian assistance in health, infrastructure, environment, labor and gender-related areas. If the lot of North Koreans improves in measurable terms, they will start to ask questions about their social and political rights under the oppressive regime.

KH: The Hollywood film “The Interview” has attracted global attention on North Korea and Pyongyang vehemently objected to the film’s release. If South Korea’s human rights groups send balloons containing DVDs and USBs of the movie, will a revolution occur?

Park: Although we should not rule out the possibility of a bottom-up revolution in North Korea, it is unlikely. The society is highly oppressive, but most North Koreans are tamed to their feudal lives. Regime loyalty is waning under Kim Jong-un compared to his father and grandfather, but there is still a core group of 500 thousand party apparatchiks. Kim Jong-un reacted so furiously because, being enshrined in a “cult of personality,” insulting him is an act of blasphemy. Balloons may send outside information into the reclusive state experiencing rising mobile phone subscriptions and proliferation of markets.

KH: How can regional power China increase leverage on North Korea for unification?

Park: Through the “Juche” ideology, North Korea has developed significant abilities to survive independently, free from the influence of regional powers. If Pyongyang pursues a track of “lax developmental dictatorship,” there will be a significant progress. Despite the North’s rocky relations with China, the communist ally still considers North Korea a strategic buffer zone against U.S. military presence. China will put greater pressure the more Pyongyang is seen as a strategic liability than an asset. Seoul must convince Beijing that its military alliance with the U.S. will be fundamentally different after unification ― as a non-nuclear state. Unified Korea will also bolster regional economic cooperation through bilateral and international free trade agreements.

KH: As the re-establishment of diplomacy between Cuba and the U.S. shows, communism is seeing its final days throughout the world. What is the state of North Korea’s economy?

Park: Unofficial market activities have sprung up in North Korea following the end of 1990s’ famine. Eighty percent of North Korean family income comes from the underground economy, with the regime incorporating market elements into statecraft. There are “Red Capitalists” operating through Chinese borders and Chinese capital has penetrated North Korea’s bifurcated markets. North Koreans are not under dire food shortages anymore. But market activities are allowed only to the point where it poses no threat to the regime’s legitimacy.

KH: What is the state of economic cooperation between North and South Korea through initiatives such as the Gaesong Industrial Complex?

Park: So far financial aid has been given to the North largely without conditions. We should continue to engage North Korea even if we incur losses in the short run. The Gaesong Industrial Complex is a symbolic site of economic cooperation between South Korea’s small companies and the cash-strapped communist regime. The main products are labor-intensive goods, such as shoes, clothes and machine metals. Its industrial upgrading is prohibited by the Missile Technology Control Regime, which still applies to the North.

KH: Should South Korea lift the May 24 sanctions put in place after North Korea’s sinking of naval corvette Cheonan in 2010?

Park: As a precondition, South Korea said the May 24 sanctions cannot be lifted without Pyongyang’s sincere apology. But there are ways to circumvent the sanctions through high-level meetings. We can also allow North Korean fishing vessels to pass through our waters, and invest in the Rajin-Khasan logistics and railroad projects. Tourism in Mount Geumgang can be restarted once North Korea guarantees travelers’ safety and management transparency. But unlike in the past where the South Korean government poured in money, the business should be financed by companies without state support.

KH: How can government and citizens prepare for unification? What is the best approach?

Park: Unification efforts must be steadfast for all possible scenarios. We must build our economy and people should keep unification in their minds. The South Korean government has focused on managing peace and military tension so far. We now need a proactive “unification diplomacy” by being in the driver’s seat. As in President Park’s Dresden Declaration, we can start from easier tasks, such as building infrastructure and increasing people-to-people exchanges. Small improvements will deepen mutual trust. We must demand North Korea to be a rational member of the international community. The North’s economy saw a marked increase in market activities over the last 20 years. Its political leadership can follow suit by becoming a benign dictator.

Rolf Mafael

● Rolf Mafael started his ambassadorship in Korea in July 2012 after a long diplomatic career in Geneva, Tehran, Brussels, Berlin and Tokyo. He worked as a state prosecutor in Mannheim the early 1980s and joined Germany’s Foreign Service in 1985. He has five children.

Park Young-ho

● Park Young-ho has been at the Korea Institute for National Unification since its foundation in 1991. He obtained his Ph.D. in comparative politics at the University of Cincinnati, and specializes in North Korean politics and unification policy. He was a former president of the Korean Association of Area Studies and is a standing committee member of the National Unification Advisory Council

By Joel Lee (

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