Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification


He's 55 years old and has been working in the ministry for 27 years, in which he has served under some 15 different unification ministers. Kim has been the deputy minister for two months now. He's gradually worked his way up through the ranks. On the walls there are a few prints depicting Korean waterfalls and mountain landscapes. Kim is sitting in an armchair and speaking softly with his hands folded in front of his stomach. Above all, though, Kim is very, very cautious.

One poorly chosen word could quickly lead to inter-Korean complications. This must have been how West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher also felt in the days leading up to German reunification. Does Kim know Genscher? "Oh yes, of course! Genscher. Schäuble, too. They are famous. I would have invited them to join our commission, but they are very old now, aren't they?" Kim dips a piece of sugar into his tea. "You see, we need cooperation with Germany. How do we match up the systems? How will the citizens get along with each other? What will happen with the armies? The Germans have done a good job with this. But it could have been better. One always has to be well prepared, just in case it starts."

And when will it start?

Kim smiles. "I'm sure you will understand that I don't wish to say anything about that. But I will live to see Korean unification." But how will it proceed? Is there some kind of a plan?

"We don't want the North to collapse. Our plan calls for: first creating peace, then cooperation, then a confederation, then unity." And if the North collapses anyway? What if there is a revolution, as there was in Germany? Will South Korea then open the borders for a reunification?

"That is also a very sensitive question. Let's put it this way: Perhaps the North Koreans could remain in their homeland, yes? And we will help them." 6 Million North Koreans Threatened By Hunger

South Korea has Asia's fourth-largest economy. It's a booming country. North Korea, however, is a different story, with 6 million people threatened with hunger, according to a recent United Nations report. It's hard to imagine that the North Koreans would remain in the North. If there is a lesson to be learned from German reunification, then it's presumably that the easterners head west: rapidly, in large numbers and inexorably.

Do the North Koreans even want reunification? "We have no information about this," says Kim. "We don't know. We only have the defectors who tell us that the conditions in the country are very poor."

Roughly 3,000 North Koreans flee every year -- mostly via China, then through Vietnam or Thailand to South Korea, where the Ministry of Unification looks after them. First, the refugees are interrogated by the intelligence agency to ensure that they are not spies. Afterwards they are sent to Hanawon -- a resettlement camp outside of Seoul.

During a three-month training program, they are given an introduction to South Korean society. No one is allowed to leave the camp and the refugees are closely guarded. They relearn the country's history, for instance that the North started the Korean War. They learn how to use an ATM. They learn how to drive a car. They even learn how to speak: South Korean.

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