A Korean Take on 30 Years of German Reunification: Are There Lessons for Korea?

The former Korean Minister of Unification and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, Woo-ik Yu, reflects on lessons learned from the German reunification.


Doug Saunders: You have said in the past that you believe that Korean reunification will happen during your lifetime. Do you still believe this?

Woo-ik Yu: I was asked this in 2011 by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, when I was still in office as Minister of Reunification. I replied to him, I want to see it in my lifetime. And I hope it is possible. I want to see it, but I don't know.

But that is how it happened in Germany – overnight, very suddenly. Korea’s could be a slower, step-by-step reunification. But it will probably be more like Germany’s, where the situation changes so rapidly that people cannot react.

And it would have to be a change in North Korea that precipitates this?

Yu: Not only the north. Also consider the relationship around the peninsula, especially China. It may come to a situation where China thinks that it is not harmful to have a reunified Korea – that it is even beneficial if Korea is unified.

It could happen either way – the situation in the peninsula changes, or the relationship between the North and China changes, or between China and the world. Or, alone, if China itself changes. Because, you know, history does not always follow the logic we expect.

I don't think this kind of politics, a one-party dictatorship over 1.4 billion people, can be sustained over a long time period. I think the Chinese leaders are aware of this fact and they are trying to make some changes. I don't know what they are talking about right now. But I have some clues that they are talking about a process to clearly see how to make a soft landing. This could create a chance for Korea.

As you note, German reunification happened very quickly. Do you think that is the best example for Korea? If something changed suddenly, would the best response be a rapid move toward reunification?

Yu: You know, this is a very good question. I have asked many German politicians, 'Why were you so hasty to overcome these 40 years of separation?’ That is not enough time. It has taken three years for England to just talk about Brexit – three years so far. But Germans did reunification in eleven months. I cannot say which people are correct – but it was very hasty, very rapid.

And then you have to ask, did you have any alternative? Did you have an option to make it happen more slowly? I don't think so. On one side, the people in GDR wanted to have reunification as soon as possible. They said if the Deutschmark comes to us, we will stay; if it does not come, then we move to the West. This produced so much pressure that no politician could say no.

And another problem was that President [Ronald] Reagan and after that President [George H. W.] Bush were very positively supporting German reunification. They were actually the project managers. And they did a good job. And [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev was doing what the U.S. president said. 

What from the German precedent do you want to be careful to avoid if reunification happens tomorrow in Korea?

Yu: The financial problem is a big challenge, but I think it should be somehow possible to manage it. The political and cultural problems are more serious.

If tomorrow we reunified, the difference is perhaps much bigger than we suppose: the two peoples, North Koreans and South Koreans, grew into very different people – in their way of thinking, living, even physically. Everything is so different now.

But we sometimes observe the athletes in the Olympics or in Asian Games – sometimes they form a team together, one Korean team. And after a couple hours, they communicate. Maybe there are some difficulties, but they communicate without any friction. So I think we have to make a big effort to overcome these cultural differences and to create a new identity, or even to recover the old identity of Koreans.

And I think the Germans still have this problem. They underestimated these 40 years of separation. They thought that in ten years everything would be ok. But after 30 years, you know, one in four eastern Germans vote differently than then the rest of the German people.

In Korea, we have to identify strategies to deal with these cultural disparities or differences. This is very important.

Do you think the people of South Korea would be ready for this? You would immediately have a lot of refugees.

Yu: When I was a professor, before going into government, I wrote an article about the reunification of Korea. And the idea I suggested was that North Koreans should not be allowed to immediately come to South Korea. Using geographic modeling, I calculated that during the first year of reunification there will be about three million North Koreans in South Korea, and more than one third, a million people, will come to Seoul. How could the mayor of Seoul accommodate one million people overnight?

There was very severe criticism addressing me personally for saying that. But I am still of the opinion that the border should be controlled. If we lived separated for more than 70 years, we can wait two or three years until it is stabilized. The freedom and the money will come. But you are not supposed to come across the border three million at a time.

So you don't want a moment like November 9, 1989? 

Yu: No. Not if we can prevent it. I mean, you don't know how great the pressure will be, how many politicians will be populist and will say, okay, the door is open and you are free! And that is very dangerous. 

In Germany, they felt that freedom of movement was central to the reunification project from the beginning. 

Yu: It was. But if you lose young, educated and active people from North Korea or from eastern Germany, then who will rebuild the region? Who will develop the region? They will be gone, and many of those who remain will be inactive types, those who are not very well educated, or old, or sick. This in the long term would be very negative for the region’s development.

What happened was that western Germans came and took positions, even as university presidents and state governors. This is the problem that even today causes dissatisfaction among eastern Germans.

They started out with a definition of freedom meaning self-determination, and they got freedom, but it is not self-determination – it is dependency. You have to think, who decides? Who makes the important decisions in our society? In this regard, the East-Germans are anxious, dissatisfied. This is the main problem, I think.

Therefore, you have to say to people – especially to the second-tier administrators, the important people in a village or a small town – that they have to stay there. Because they then will lead the community. They will serve the people – but in another way, different from the old regime.

People often talk about the financial cost – reunification has so far cost Germans almost two trillion euros.

Yu: Yes, but do you have any idea how much money both Koreas, north and south, are paying for the cost of being separated? And South Korea is much richer than North Korea compared to the much lesser disparity between West and East Germany at that time.

And another thing, maybe the most important to understand. Germany first became a unified country in 1871, and it was unified until 1945. That is not a long time, less than 75 years – it is a young country. But Korea was one nation for 1,269 years.

In South Korea there are ten million people who live as separated families. So 1,269 years as one nation means you are all relatives. There are no strangers. That means that on one hand, it is very homogenous; on the other hand, it is very well integrated socially. So it is maybe in some sense easier for Koreans to integrate with one another, on an individual basis.

Korea has an example in Germany – a good example, which on the whole was successful. The Korean people are eager to make a reunification work, and they could learn from Germany.


Woo-ik Yu is the former Korean Minister of Unification, professor of geography at the Seoul National University and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow from January 2019 to January 2020.

Doug Saunders is a Canadian international-affairs journalist, author and currently Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow.