SEOUL — In one of numerous books dealing with unification matters, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung refers to his meetings with leading German politicians in the early part of the 1990s. According to Kim’s account, the German politicians told him, “You are fortunate because you can analyze all the problems that already occurred in Germany, and thus prepare yourselves against their recurring in Korea.”

Kim and many Koreans have taken this counsel seriously and studied the German unification saga. There is obviously a “market” for this kind of information. Hardly a day passes without a seminar being held on some aspect of German unification.

Recently, I attended one such conference in Seoul. There, a renowned Korean scholar said, “For us Koreans, Germany can be the only model leading us to reunification.” I have heard such statements before, and I always express my doubts about its accuracy. Even a superficial comparison of the conditions in Germany and surrounding nations 10 years ago with what is happening here today must lead to the conclusion that the circumstances — political, economic and social — are very different. German unification is not a blueprint that should simply be copied. On the other hand, it does offer food for thought and experiences that may be of value for Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.

There is no country outside Europe in which interest in German affairs is as developed as it is in Korea. The recent upsurge of this interest has two causes. The main reason is the dramatic developments in inter-Korean relations. After years of tensions, the window of opportunity has finally opened. The 10th anniversary of Germany’s unification is a second explanation.

There have been many commentaries and reports dealing with the German anniversary. The German newspapers and electronic media are filled with accounts commemorating the historic event. It is striking to see how many of these evaluations are negative or unenthusiastic. The commentators stress the economic difficulties in the east, dwelling on the political disenchantment of Germans in both parts of the country and the problems both sides are having as they try to create “internal unity.”

It is true that many problems remain unresolved in Germany. Arguably, the major difficulties are psychological: the inability of many westerners to accept and acknowledge easterners as they are, with the peculiarities and differences that have resulted from 40 years of separation and socialization under very different political and economic systems. Then there is the material cleavage: Ten years after unification, the eastern part of Germany has yet to achieve the standards prevailing in the west. Every year, billions of deutsche marks are transferred from one part of the country to the other. It is also significant that the guiding focus or benchmark of the population in the east is the situation in the west. Only when eastern Germany reaches the same economic level as the west will discussions on the impact of unification come to an end in Germany. Experts agree that it will take decades.

It seems to be part of the German character to emphasize the negative side of things. If you ask a German whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, he will normally say it’s half-empty. This pertains to assessments of the situation in eastern Germany 10 years after unification. In the media and in conversations with many people, you will hear about problems, failures and shortcomings, despite the indisputable achievements in rebuilding the east.

Thes successes are worth mentioning. The environment in the east has improved beyond imagination. While people in the east used to suffer from horrific air pollution due to the burning of lignite (formerly the east’s most important fuel), most central-heating systems have been converted to environment-friendly natural gas. People can now fish and swim in the lakes and rivers, and tap water is drinkable again. Despite high unemployment levels, living standards have risen considerably in the east: Both average and real incomes have gone up. The eastern telecommunications system has not only achieved western standards, it is one of the most modern in the world. The list of material successes could go on.

But the most important result of German unification, which should take center stage on today’s 10th anniversary, is the fact that people have regained their freedom. Freedom and unification were two sides of the same coin 10 years ago in Germany. And despite all the differences between Korea and Germany, this is an important message.

Unification that truly deserves the name can only be achieved if all Koreans are free — free to speak, free to travel, free to vote and free to choose their governments. This “miracle” was achieved in Germany 10 years ago. I hope it will soon be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.