Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification

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The students in the auditorium are wearing headphones as they listen to the simultaneously interpreted speeches. But many of the ideas seem to be lost on them.

'Don't Be Timid' De Maizière and Schönbohm are sitting on the stage like two well-preserved German exhibits. "Is it true that you have the same birthday as Mikhail Gorbachev?" asks a student. De Maizière smiles briefly. "Yes, that's right. We're both Pisces. He humorously calls me young man. I call him Micha Sergeyevich." Schönbohm talks about a book that he wrote on German reunification. "It's called 'Two Armies and One Fatherland.' But it's out of print."

Some students are sleeping. Others are playing with their iPhones. "Do you have any advice for Korea?" someone asks. "Don't be timid," says de Maizière. "Don't talk about the costs. Talk about investments in the future!" De Maizière and Schönbohm look as if they could ride off at a moment's notice should a revolution erupt in the North. But they would probably ride alone.

"The South Koreans are all afraid," Schönbohm says with disappointment after the talks, as the delegation gathers for an evening reception at the German embassy. "I was recently in Cairo, where I gave a presentation. The Arabs are very interested in our experiences, what to do with the old political cadre and so on."

Perhaps North Africa is an alternative -- perhaps the Arab Spring can serve as inspiration if nothing happens in Korea.

"The Koreans plan and plan, but that's not how it works," says Horst Teltschik, Kohl's old foreign policy advisor. He has stomach problems and is only eating a little bread. "You have to be flexible -- observe and read the signs," says Teltschik. Read the signs?

A Time of Opportunity?

"Regime changes in communist dictatorships are always times of instability," he says. "This could soon present an opportunity in North Korea."

It's as if, already a few weeks ago, Teltschik foresaw everything that would happen.

Now, Kim Jong Il is dead. His successor is Kim Jong Un, the youngest son, about whom the West knows virtually nothing -- not even his age. He is presumably under 30. He wears his hair as his father did and is supported by his uncle Chang Song Taek and his aunt Kim Kyung Hee. The world is speculating whether the new Kim could be a puppet of the military or a reformer -- or neither. Even the CIA has only scant information. And Teltschik?

"Anyone who doesn't believe in the impossible is not a realist," Teltschik says on the evening of the embassy gathering in Seoul -- at a time when he couldn't possibly know that Kim Jong Il would die four weeks later.

Perhaps this means that everything will happen very suddenly and very rapidly.

In any case, the Germans are ready to rise to the occasion -- including Eppelmann. "In the spring, the South Koreans are scheduled to visit us in Berlin," he says. "Ongoing government level talks."

It's the morning before the flight back home and Eppelmann is standing on a street full of shops, looking for a present, but he has time for a political summary. He buys massage oil for his wife and, just as the reporter is getting ready to ask him if the trip, in his view, was a success, he blurts out, seemingly totally out of the blue: "I also need a knife block."

"Knife block?" says the escort from the Ministry of Unification, who is standing next to him and understands only a smattering of German. "K-n-i-f-e b-l-o-c-k?" Eppelmann repeats and enunciates even more clearly. The Korean stares at him. Eppelmann pulls a piece of paper out of his pants pocket and sketches a knife block with a few strokes. "Here, knife block? For knives … ?"

Then they walk down the street together, collectively looking for a knife block -- the last defense minister of the GDR and a young man from the Ministry for Unification of the Republic of Korea. It's actually not a bad final image for a story about bringing people together.

Eppelmann ends up buying a few Korean chopstick holders.

"Also nice," he says.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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