Probably the most clear-cut dissimilarity between Germany when it was divided and the present state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula is the status of cross-border people-to-people contacts and relations. In the long years of Germany’s division, a multitude of communication channels existed between the two parts of the country.

The division of the Germans was at no time so drastic as it has been and continues to be in this part of the world. There are many reasons for the rigorousness of the Korean divide and the almost complete barring of any human contact. The most crucial factor may be found in the legacy of the Korean War (essentially a bloody civil war), which has left deep scars in the collective conscience of the Korean nation.

Over the years, governments on both sides cultivated a climate of hatred and enmity, creating hostility in the minds of the people. These stereotypes need to be overcome for national harmony to be restored. And national harmony — this goes without saying — is an essential precondition for successful reunification.

The tragedy of the divided nation is foremost the tragedy of innumerable individuals, the survivors of war and destruction. In these days, the divided families and their relatives, hundreds of thousands, even millions of individuals, who not only lost house and home, but were torn from their loved ones, are in the focus of public attention.

In Germany, too, division after World War II led to uncounted human tragedies, as millions of Germans lost their property and were divided from members of their kith and kin. As in Korea, families were torn apart, some relatives ending up in the capitalist and democratic West, others in the communist and despotic East. In spite of these parallels in the history of the two peoples, the fate of Germans living in national division was more bearable than that of their fellow-sufferers in Korea. From the very beginning, a myriad of channels of communication existed between West and East Germany. There were numerous possibilities — legal and less legal — for the people to interact and stay in contact. Letters could be sent, telephone lines remained intact, and every year millions of parcels passed the inner-German border from West to East.

As I read how the lucky South Koreans who have been picked to travel to the North to meet relatives were preparing and how they discussed what presents to take along, my mind drifted back to my own youth in Germany, when together with my mother we used to pack parcels, which we sent to our relatives in the other part of the country. Our packages, containing goodies such as coffee, chocolate and other “luxury products” not available in the communist “workers’ paradise,” did not always arrive at their destination, but most times they did. These parcels alone were a constant reminder to the East German masses how false the official communist propaganda was that tried to denigrate Western Germany as a poor and miserable society.

Strengthening people-to-people contacts between East and West was from the very outset the prime objective of the so-called “Ostpolitik” kicked off by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s. In historical terms this policy of engaging the East may well be termed extremely successful. Less than a decade after the inception of the new policy some 3 million West Germans were permitted to travel annually to the “German Democratic Republic.” Later, hundreds of thousands of East Germans were given permits to visit the West.

From the very beginning, improving the fortune of people living in the divided Germany was the main aim of “Ostpolitik.” This endeavor was not only motivated by fundamental humanitarian considerations. Strategists in the West also knew very well that increasing people-to-people contacts was the best way to keep alive the concept of one nation in the minds of the people on both sides of the barbed wire.

I see a clear parallel between Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” and Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine policy.” Just as the German statesman fought for people-to-people contacts, the South Korean president is pushing for reunions of the divided families.

The visit of some 100 North Koreans in the South and an equal number of South Koreans in the North is a historic milestone for this country. For the privileged few who were granted permission to meet their relatives after half a century, a lifelong dream is coming true. But these reunions can only be the beginning of a much larger exchange. For with every day that goes by, the pain of all those who have not been considered in this gruesome bureaucratic selection procedure is mounting.

The success of the present diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula depends to a large extent on whether considerably more personal contacts will materialize. In this sense, the number of family reunions is sort of a barometer of the North-South detente. Its level will show whether the government in the North is serious when talking about cooperation and reconciliation, or whether all the events of the last few weeks are just another propaganda plot by the regime in Pyongyang.

The aim of politics should always be the improvement of the lot of the people. Today, a few fortunate Koreans, those who are once again embracing their relatives, are in the epicenter of public attention. More than ever, however, we should feel for the less lucky ones, the millions of Koreans for whom this very basic human right remains withheld as a result of the barbaric division of their homeland.

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