Introduced: Woo-ik Yu

May 2019

Woo-ik Yu is a geographer and statesman. He has been professor of geography at the Seoul National University (SNU) for 29 years serving also as Secretary General and Treasurer of the International Geographical Union (2004-2010). He left university to serve the Korean government (2008-2013) as Chief of Staff for the President, Ambassador to China and lastly Minister of Unification. Then he returned to academia to teach at the SNU as honorary professor and at the Korea Military Academy (KMA) as distinguished professor.  


Mr. Woo-ik Yu, what are you working on as fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy?

I’m exploring the extent to which Germany is integrated as a unified country 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’m asking: how do eastern and western Germans feel about themselves and one another, and about their relationship to neighbor countries? What has been done well, and what has come up short? What might have been done better? These are questions that I put to my interviewees from diverse social groups in various regions in Germany. I also put to them specific questions, according to their gender, generation, schooling, occupation, social status, and Heimat.

As a former German university student, and a former professor of geography and minister for unification of Korea, I intend to sketch a picture of the united Germany one generation after its unification. Listening to people, observing with my own eyes on the ground, I’ll try to understand their subjective views and to interpret the results on the basis of my own knowledge and experiences. Of course, I hope to learn lessons for the unification of Korean peninsula.

What are the most relevant issues in your field? Do perspectives on these issues differ between Germany and Korea?

I have read Richard von Weizsäcker’s book Der Weg zur Einheit twice since coming to Berlin. And a few days ago, I bought Franz Richter’s Gehört Sachsen noch zu Deutschland? In Berlin, I have heard controversial opinions about contemporary Germany and often hear such words as Demokratie, Flüchtlinge, Frauen, Brexit, and the initials of the German parties, such as CDU, SPD, AfD, as well as Koalition, among others.

In Seoul, the issue of “war and peace” is focused on the denuclearization of North Korea (NK), including the summit talks between Korea, the US, and NK. Learning from history, it may be said that appeasement policy doesn’t bring a lasting peace. Not less important seems to be the economic situation of the country, which has to plow through the high waves of a changing civilization. We need also to reach out to the North Korean people who are facing a difficult time ahead under an isolated, totalitarian regime. 

Of course, Korea and Germany have similar as well as different issues, which are somehow interrelated. I had long been conscious of the common and proper characteristics of the Geopolitik of both countries. That is one of the reasons why in 1976 I chose to study in West Germany and not the US, and then again now for my research. 

What are you trying to achieve during your fellowship?

I want to write a book if my work in Germany turns out to be fruitful. It might be titled something like Bericht aus Berlin: Der Weg zur Einheit in which I would report to my students, cadets, and the Korean people my view on the unification of Korea. The book will be based on my knowledge and lifelong experience including my interpretation of German reunification and integration.

I would like to publish it in German. This is a dream of a former German student who regards this country as his academic Heimat. I would hope that the book would find enough German readers, and satisfy their intellectual curiosity or at least their concern for the Mitmenschen, namely the Koreans who live in a divided country just as they once did.

How would you describe your cooperation with the Robert Bosch Academy?

I feel honored to be a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow as I met him in 2012 during my official visit to Germany as Korean minister of unification. I am fortunate to be invited by the foundation, just as I was invited some forty years ago by DAAD. The foundation is politically independent and works with an outstanding international point of view and global network, which is very important for a fellow like me.

As a fellow, I am well supported in everyday life as well as in research works. I very much appreciate that the staff is always kind and ready to help me with making contacts to the specialists with whom I want to talk. Without their assistance, it would have been very difficult for me to dig so deep into German society, to meet a former president and visit the relevant institutions. I also appreciate their readiness to supply me with information about literature, social organizations, and cultural events.  

What new insights are you going to take home to South Korea?

I admire the achievements and the Besonnenheit that German political leaders as well as citizens of the East and West showed in the process of the fall of the wall, unification, and thereafter. They seized the chance quickly, without hesitation, but were not too hasty. In this context, I am reminded from time to time of the fact that I am in a “country of thinking” that succeeded to reunify the divided nation despite the complicated historical background and practical difficulties. Germans achieved Einheit und Freiheit together.

How do you feel being part of the community of fellows?

The fellow community is small, and therefore we are often in touch with one another. The fellow lunch every Tuesday and the Academy Tea Time offer us opportunities to get acquainted with one another and learn what the others are doing. They are from all over the world, and the themes they are working on cover the global extent. The talks are highly stimulating.

Recently, I learned a lot about the political situation in South Africa and Northern Ireland, which otherwise I would not have paid much attention to. I really enjoy the international network of the fellow community.   

What do you like most about Berlin?

I am living in Pankow, in former East Berlin. I love to live there with my wife and our Sonderzug nach Pankow is the U2. We go often to Museum Island and walk from there to Alexanderplatz. It is always thrilling to imagine to be back on the spot where the spectacle of half a million people demonstrating for the reunification took place.

Another attraction of Berlin is, of course, the abundant cultural events. We’re enjoying concerts at Berliner Philharmonie, Konzerthaus Berlin, and the Deutsche Oper.

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