Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification

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The delegation also includes Horst Teltschik, 71, a foreign policy advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl; Richard Schröder, 68, former parliamentary floor leader for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Volkskammer (parliament) of the GDR; retired German armed forces Lieutenant General and former interior minister of the state of Brandenburg Jörg Schönbohm, 74, and various academics, former ministers and a representative from the agency that manages the archives of former East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi.

"We have to see what can be achieved," says de Maizière, as he dabs his mouth with a napkin after the six-course dinner. "I can only tell people what happened back in Germany. The Koreans have to make their own decisions." Does he actually know anyone in the South Korean delegation? De Maizière glances around the room and looks into unfamiliar South Korean faces. "No," he says.

The next day, the first working session between the South Koreans and the Germans is held in the Peacock Suite on the 36th floor. The topic of discussion: "German reunification and the process of German unity: preconditions, results and problems." The delegates sit across from each other at a long table, 14 Germans and 14 South Koreans. Perhaps they are thinking that this will one day be an historic image -- like the photos of the round table talks in East Berlin between the communists and the opposition, or when then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met in the Caucasus in July 1990. Kohl and Gorbachev, one wearing a cardigan the other a knit pullover, discussed the details of German unification as they took a summer stroll along a riverbank.

North Korea Remains an Enigma

The odd thing, though, is that no one has ever had the impression that Korean reunification could be just around the corner -- neither over the short or the medium term. Have there been signs of this recently? Glasnost in Pyongyang? There have not been any such signs, neither before nor after the death of Kim Jong Il, who always looked like a dictator invented by Hollywood. North Korea remains an enigma. There's no other country in the world about which so little is known. Even the South Koreans remain largely in the dark about their neighbor to the north.

The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice. A peace treaty was never signed. With some 1.2 million soldiers, North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world. It was only a little over a year ago, in November 2010, that North Korea fired artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Two soldiers and two civilians were killed. The US dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and a number of South Korean parliamentarians called for retaliatory air strikes. The mood between the North and the South is still comparable to the tensions that reigned between the Soviet Union and the US during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

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