Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification


The Soviet Union has long since ceased to exist, the US has an African-American president and Seoul is not West Berlin, the former frontline city of the Cold War. But the local geography is marked by similarly short distances. It takes just an hour to reach the North Korean border. In just three hours, a traveler would be in Pyongyang. Back in West Berlin it was possible to watch East German TV, but in Seoul and throughout South Korea it's impossible to receive a single North Korean television program. Ministry of Unification officials say that every broadcast that comes from the North is blocked by South Korean state agencies out of fear of propaganda.

There are no postal deliveries between the North and the South. Direct telephone connections do not exist either. Travel between the two Koreas is as follows: In 2010 approximately 130,000 South Koreans visited the North -- while only 132 North Koreans made official visits to South Korea. In Germany they often talked about the Iron Curtain that divided the country. Compared to the situation in Korea, it was just a picket fence. 'I Didn't Believe Germany Unity Would Come, Either'

So what can be done about the situation? Is reunification even realistic?

That evening de Maizière is sitting in a nondescript restaurant in downtown Seoul. "I didn't believe that German unity would ever come, either -- and then it suddenly happened," he says. This is already de Maizière's fifth trip to South Korea since German reunification. He has spoken to students, academics and government officials. "This is now my fourth or fifth Korean unification minister. They appoint new ones all the time. I can't remember all their names," says de Maizière. "Or their faces," adds Schönbohm.

"They always have the same questions," says de Maizière. "It was the same story today. The Koreans basically don't want unity to cost too much, and I tell them it will cost much more than you can imagine." Eppelmann nods in agreement. "I've realized that the South Koreans are trying to figure out a way for the North Koreans to remain in the North after unification," says Eppelmann. "The South Koreans were talking about border controls. I'll be damned! They seriously intend to close the border after the wall has fallen!"

Eppelmann looks as if he has been personally insulted. As a former East German, he naturally tends to feel more of a sense of kinship with the North Koreans. De Maizière stares at his beer. Schönbohm pokes around in his bowl of kimchi. "The commission is scheduled to meet over the next five years," says de Maizière, "I asked the South Koreans, though: 'Do you really want to wait so long with your reunification?'"

Everything went incredibly fast in the Eastern Bloc. The GDR and its allied communist states disappeared within just one year. One month later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Back then, as a civil rights activist from East Berlin, it was possible to change the whole world. But everyone is still racking their brains about what to do with Korea.

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