SEOUL — The relationship between local autonomy and unification is becoming an increasingly hot topic in South Korea, as more and more local authorities aspire to an active role in the process of rapprochement with the North. It is clear that this nation is passing through a historic moment. Hardly a day goes by without an announcement of yet another new — often stunning — development on the diplomatic front of North-South relations. What until just a few weeks ago seemed next to impossible has become political reality virtually overnight: Consider, for example, the upcoming meeting between the two countries’ defense ministers or the ongoing talks aimed at allowing members of long-divided families to exchange letters. In these moving times — and I use the adjective to describe the personal as well as the historical dimension of this process — the question is not whether the two Koreas will be united. The question at the forefront of the many current debates — private, academic and political — is when and in what form the two countries will come together as a unified state.

Many Koreans believe that in this fascinating situation Germany is the ideal model. (This of course refers to Koreans in the South, as we know very little about what is happening in this regard in the North.) Although many South Korean scholars acknowledge that there are important differences between the German situation at the time of that country’s unification and Korean circumstances today, they consider Germany to be — in the words of a political scientist who spoke at a seminar here recently — “the only example we can learn from.”

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung once said that the Koreans are fortunate to be “late-comers,” as it gives them a chance to study the developments leading up to German unification and the process followed in reuniting two such diverse countries. It is to be hoped that this study may help the Koreans to learn some key lessons and prevent them from repeating some of the mistakes that were obviously committed in Germany before and after its the triumphant union 10 years ago. Germany’s unification surely does not constitute a blueprint that merely needs to be copied. The political, social and economic conditions of contemporary Northeast Asia are too different from those prevailing in the heart of Europe a decade ago.

It is clear that local authorities have a role to play in the process leading to unification. Therefore, the criticism often heard in this country that political relations with the North have been monopolized by the central government is justified. So far, local governments have not been included in any North-South dealings. Yet local authorities in the South are certainly interested in joining the bandwagon and taking an active part in this historical movement. According to a researcher at the Korea Research Institute for Local Administration, South Korean local governments currently have some 20 programs in the pipeline aimed at engaging partners from the local or provincial level in North Korea. Difficult as it may be to put these plans into practice, such efforts should be encouraged and promoted. Genuine rapprochement between the estranged members of the South and North Korean societies can only be achieved if ordinary people are included in the process.

There has been hardly any movement in this direction so far, since for obvious reasons the communists in the North fear the exposure of their citizens to foreign (this includes South Korean) influences as the devil fears holy water. So far, intra-Korean relations have been subject to a political top-down approach. The key question remains: When will this relationship be enhanced by the addition of a “bottom-up” component? The chances of this happening soon are not good. Everything we know about the North Korean regime suggests that it is not only an extremely dictatorial system, it is also highly centralized, thus leaving very little room for local initiatives of any kind.

One of the instruments discussed by local governments in South Korea as a means of institutionalizing contact with the North is the promotion of official cross-border partnerships between municipalities and other local authorities. These sister-community relationships have long been an important mode of international cooperation on the nongovernment level. Several South Korean provincial and municipal governments have already expressed a wish to link up with similar authorities in the North. So far, no agreement has been achieved. Some South Korean local government officials are considering making use of their relationships with local authorities in either Japan or China, inviting them to step in as go-betweens in establishing connections with potential North Korean partners.

The German experience in this regard has also been cited here. In the years before unification, some 62 sisterships between West German and East German local authorities were established. It is notable that the first such agreement was established in 1986, just three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the virtual collapse of communist rule in the East.

Yet, as important as these official channels may have been in a political sense, historically they played only a minor role in bringing Germans from East and West together. Much more significant were the many people-to-people contacts that were made on a private level: In the final years of German division, millions of West Germans traveled to the East, and not quite as many, but also very many, East Germans went to the West. Here I see one, if not the major, difference between the Koreas now and East and West Germany then. So essential is this dissimilarity that it will have a major impact on how (and when) unification is achieved on the Korean Peninsula.

I was invited recently to present a paper at a seminar dealing with the issue of local autonomy and unification from a German angle. There was some disappointment in the audience after my talk, as I had said a lot about how the administrative system in the East was adjusted after unification, but made only a very few remarks as to what the West German local governments did before unification to prepare for that great event. The explanation for my omission is simple: There was no such systematic preparation for unification on the part of German local governments, no strategic concept, not even a contingency plan. There was only a general political consensus that all authorities in the West should participate as fully as possible in a process aimed at increasing cooperation with the East. For a long time, the declared goal of this “strategy of cooperation” was not unification, but merely normalization of the relationship between the two Germanies. Today we know that this strategy laid the foundation for Germany’s peaceful unification in 1990. In the process leading up to this historic event, Germany’s local authorities played only a secondary role. They were much more important in the years after the restoration of national unity.

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