Lessons from Germany
When talking about countries divided by communist and capitalist forces in the 1940s, two examples usually come to mind ― Korea and Germany. There were other cases of course, including Vietnam and China, but Germany and Korea are perhaps the two most talked about.
Indeed, the similarities between the two are obvious: both Korea and Germany were divided by the Soviet Union and the United States. Ostensibly, this was done for military purposes, but provisional lines of division drawn soon solidified into state borders. In Germany, the border existed for 45 years, in South Korea it has lasted 65 and counting.
But there are considerable differences between the two situations that should not be ignored. If one looks closer, divided Germany is less similar to divided Korea than it appears on first glance.
The two Koreas fought a major war that killed about a million people (the exact figure is yet unknown). The wartime experience made Koreans on both sides more willing to side with their governments.
The two German states never fought one another. But both armies were ready to do so if ordered, and both had war strategies, one might assume, given the famous German foresight and attention to detail. However, the politicians either side of the Iron Curtain never allowed this to happen.
People were shot by border guards to be sure ― some 400 of them ― and there were border incidents in which 30 German soldiers were killed during the decades of division. However, this was nothing like the regular shootouts that have been a part of life on the Korean DMZ.
Moreover, propaganda used was very tame when compared to that between the two Koreas. Both German governments tried to persuade its citizens that history and justice were on their side, but both sides never showered each other with the quasi-comic insults, so common in the North Korean publications on the South.
Exchange of information between the two Germanys was very intense. Contrastingly, no ordinary North Korean citizen has been allowed to see South Korean publications for decades. East Germans had some access to the West German media. TV was not an issue, since the territory of the two countries is relatively small, so TV programs from the ``other Germany” could be easily watched anywhere. In a sense, both Germanys watched the same serials, laughed at the jokes and enjoyed the same movies ― hardly the case in Korea until recently.
Indeed, the scale of personal exchanges was impressive. The East German government gradually eased restrictions on cross-border travel. In 1986, some 500,000 East Germans went to the West and visited their relatives and friends. Movement in the opposite direction was even higher, with a few million West Germans visiting the East every year in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
From 1981 onwards even those who had once defected from the East and subsequently became West German citizens were issued entrance visas and could visit their homes ― something completely unthinkable in Korea.
The difference in living standards between two German states, while considerable, was not even remotely close to that in Korea. In 1989, a year before it collapsed, East Germany had a per capita GNP between one half and one third of that of West Germany. It was a huge gap, but it was nothing compared to the current gap between the two Koreas. It is believed that the per capita income in the North is 15 to 40 times less than in the South!
East Germany could be seen as ``poor” only in comparison with West Germany, one of the world’s most successful economies. Its income and lifestyle safely placed East Germany in the ranks of middle-developed countries, like Greece or Spain.
It also boasted an efficient health care system. Of course, those small East German cars were often a laughing stock, but car industries under state socialist control in general do not fare well. Still, a car for every family was the norm in both German states.
This means that there was less passion, but also far less mutual hatred and distrust between the two Germanys. And, post-unification many Germans still suffer the consequences of the divide that created so much bitterness and alienation. As this is the case, one should not be too optimistic about Korea’s post-unified future. However, a future without unification is surely even less attractive.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.