The Korean Peninsula has been divided for almost 70 years. However, observers do not expect a reunification any time soon. Not only are the two states politically at odds, their economies are worlds apart.
When the new millennium began there were still high hopes for Korea. President Kim Dae Jung said a new era had begun after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Il in Pyongyang in June 2000. Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “Sunshine Policy” which was akin to Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik.”
He was the first president to offer Pyongyang economic support without strings attached. He made it clear that Seoul wasn’t interested in reincorporating the North. His goal was equal relations and peaceful coexistence. The idea was that trade and investment would propel North Korea’s transformation into a market economy. A middle-class would emerge and so would a multi-party democracy – as had happened in South Korea.
No transformation through rapprochement
The South could and wanted to help the North and the North could accept the help because after four decades, it had become clear whose system had triumphed, which economic system was superior. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the enemy and rival North Korea became a state in need of help. But up to now, the expectations of the rich brother in the South have not been fulfilled.
The North accepted shipments of fertilizers, rice and crops. It got hard currency from the joint Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the industrial complex Kaesong.
However, Kim Jong Il did not go to the South as promised. He equipped his country with nuclear arms and carrier rockets.
When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power, he said there would only be further help on the condition of return trade-offs from Pyongyang. Relations have been icy ever since.
Nationalism in the North
North Korea considers itself as the only party able to unify the Korean nation. It sees the South as nothing more than a lackey of the US. The founder of the state Kim Il Sung said from the start that the North was interested in a strong, unified Korea. He termed the Korean War a patriotic war of liberation and stage-managed himself as the patriarch of the Korean nation.
But “reunification” has remained merely a slogan in North Korea because the regime has linked it to certain conditions which could not be fulfilled. Pyongyang wants the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. It wants a Communist Party to be allowed in the South and it wants the formation of a confederation with a joint government.
On the other had, it does not want there to be more contact between the two states. It has no interest in the North Korean population finding out that South Korea is the more attractive part of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, isolation is actively promoted and any thaw comes with automatic limitations.
Differences with Germany
The situation on the Korean Peninsula now is much different than the situation was for Germany right before and during its reunification. In Germany’s case, there had always been contact between the East and the West. East Germans knew a lot about West Germany because of television and telephone conversations with relatives. They also had a relatively realistic image of the advantages and disadvantages of life under market conditions.
In North Korea, it is illegal to possess South Korean DVDs of films or television shows. It is also illegal to listen to South Korean radio stations. Moreover, if a South Korean has any contact with the North or with North Koreans without permission, he is likely to end up in jail. The fact that there had been no change through rapprochement prompted the South to drop the idea of reunification from its political agenda – it was clear the process would be very slow and would be difficult to achieve in both political and economic terms.
In terms of population, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were four West Germans for every East German. There are currently two South Koreans for every North Korean. The North is 17 times poorer than the South per capita and four times poorer than China. One reason the South continues to support the North’s economy is to mitigate the costs in the event of reunification.
No one expects to see the Koreas reunite as suddenly as the two Germanys did. Journalists in Seoul are told there are no plans for anything like that to happen.