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Why North and South Korea Aren’t East and West Germany

With all the recent news regarding the 20th anniversary of the reunification of the two Germanys, many people have turned the focus on Korea and are wondering why these two countries are not working towards the same goal.

The two sets of twins share many common traits. Both  countries were single entities before World War II. At the end of the war, they were both separated ideologically by the superpowers of the United States (along with friends Britain and France) and the USSR.  Neither side wanted to have so much as a single border touching between superpowers and the states of Korea and Germany were split to act as buffers.  The USSR didn’t want western powers encroaching on its land and the US wanted a democratic state, South Korea, to act as a buffer on the Asian continent. Both splits were arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, agreed upon by generals and politicians rather than any tribal, ethnic or political lines.  And there, the similarities end.

As for the reasons unification isn’t going to be so similar, the reasons are many.

First, and most importantly, the two German countries did not fight a bloody and brutal war between themselves. Although the potential for the two German states to engage in war was present and the tensions were quite high, that event never occurred. To be sure, thousands of Soviet tanks were massed along the East German border in the 1970s and 1980s for such an event.  From 1950 to 1953, however, the two Koreas engaged in a war for control of the very peninsula on which we all reside.  I won’t get into who started it or whose fault it is, but many Koreans on both sides were slaughtered, including women and children.  Those events created much animosity that still exists, particularly among politicians still serving their respective countries.  Although a few East Germans died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall, Germans never experienced the horror of Germans killing each other en masse.  Until every last voice of those who first-hand experienced the war has been silenced by old age and death, reunification will be difficult at best.  The aspects of generations of distinct cuiltures is quite fascinating on Generational Dynamics. The theory, in general, states that as one generation dies off, the next generation, which has no collective memory of the tragedies of the generation before it, enters a new crisis period. We are close to that era, but not quite there yet. Search for ‘Korea’ on the main page to find specific, although somewhat dated, articles regarding Korean generational issues.

Second, the South Koreans, by about half, do not favor reunification.  Recent polls conducted by theUS Army War College report that while 2/3rds of South Koreans believe they should be reunited, less than half believe it would be financially beneficial.  A slightly older poll from WikiNews shows that some South Koreans still view North Korea as a threat.  Recent euphoria over Germany’s 20th anniversary of reunification not withstanding, it’s a tough road to travel when people believe either that they will lose money or be threatened in the process. A recent report by Korean University says that reunification would cost South Korean almost US$1.2 Trillion, or about 10% of the South’s GDP.  That’s a lot of kim-chi.

Third, China. It’s nice to have a crazy brother that you can unleash if your neighbors are mean to you. China is often seen as the sole super power benefactor to North Korea. Therefore, its is often viewed as the benevolent side in any “good cop, bad cop” scenario played by the world P7300130community. While the UN and the USA play hard ball with North Korea, China can play the good cop and ask Kim Jong-Il to make nice – or not. China can always claim that North Korea is a sovereign state and its no fault of their own if they go off half-cocked on the world. So, the world must also play nice with China. They would lose that crazy brother and the economic leash they hold on him should reunification occur.

Last, Kim Jong-Il.  He’s got a nice deal going. He owns the place and can do what he wants, when he wants to and where (within his country) he wants to.  Dictatorships are nice jobs, if you can get one. I wouldn’t want to give one up if I had one. Neither would you.  Don’t expect him to give his up.  Once he’s gone, and that might be a while yet or not, all bets are off. As a matter of fact, I’m betting that nothing will occur in the reunification arena unless and until he is dead.

2 Responses to “Why North and South Korea Aren’t East and West Germany”

  1. admin says:

    Something I’d add as a fourth problem would be the propaganda that the people of the North have been fed for so long. Even in the 90s when there was a raid of northern commandos in Gangwondo they believed that they could get the peasants of the south to join them in a common rising against the American imperialists. In Aquariums of Pyeongyang, the author mentions his absolute shock upon reaching Seoul and finding out that not only did South Koreans all own cars, but that South Korean cars were South Korean. Adding to this factor would be the famine of the 1990s and the health problems that go with an entire generation of under-nourished or malnourished children who will have serious developmental problems.
    The US government uses the rather kind term ‘economically inviable’ to explain certain countries in Africa that have massive AIDS problems. The loving theory is that some countries are just to sick to function at a normal level. One must wonder how damage the famines in the North have truly done. Estimates point to at least 10% of the population dying…If one soldier is killed in war, 3 are usually injured…If one child dies of starvation, how many are permanently damaged by malnutrition?

    Though, on an interesting note, an interview I once read with a North Korean defector who was a student said “I miss the North Korean schools, in the south, the teachers beat you and the students are too competitive, in the North we all just worked together to find food”