MANILA — I can think of several common points between Germany and Korea, and even more between South Korea and West Germany. But a closer than superficial look will reveal more differences than similarities — also pertaining to the respective relations with and attitudes toward the United States.
Let me begin with the common points: First and foremost one should mention national division, which in the case of both countries came about as the result of international wars and had been preserved for decades due to the global confrontation between East and West. In this confrontation, Korea like Germany became a military front, with the U.S. assuming the role of the guarantor power over West Germany and South Korea, respectively.
The U.S. invested heavily in both countries assisting in economic development and deploying tens of thousands of U.S. forces, with the explicit objective of defending its allies against military aggression and “communization.”
In both countries, the dynamics of demographics have led to a dwindling of the generation that witnessed and profited firsthand from U.S. assistance and protection at the height of the Cold War. This age group is making place for a younger generation who — to quote one U.S. commentator — “do not remember the liberation of Korea, the Korean War, and the American economic assistance that saved (South) Korea.”
Likewise in Germany — as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl lamented in a recent interview — “memories of the United States’ generous help for us Germans have faded. Many have no memories of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the help and support during the Cold War and reunification.”
Ironically, in South Korea today many young people not only disregard America’s contributions toward their country’s political and economic development; they sometimes even accuse their trans-Pacific partner of being responsible for national division and other difficulties. Blaming Washington for the divide and calling it an obstacle on the path toward unification had not been a proposition held by a sizable group of people in West Germany. There, only a tiny minority of leftists blamed the U.S. for the state of national division.
Comparing the empirical data and taking into consideration my highly subjective personal observations in both countries, I would argue that anti-American sentiments (or attitudes highly critical of U.S. policies) are more pronounced in South Korea today than they were at any given time in West Germany. This divergence is due to differing intensities of nationalism in the two countries.
Korean nationalism today is stronger than German nationalism in the years preceding unification. In view of the crimes committed in the name of the German nation by the fascist dictators, a sound majority of Germans today may be called basically antinationalistic. Nationalism in Germany to this very day has a negative connotation.
For historical reasons, nationalism in South Korea has a different, positive flavor: Korea never led aggressive wars and did not attacked its neighbors. To the contrary, the Koreans have been attacked and colonized and nevertheless succeeded in defending their national identity.
The diverging intensity of national feelings is relevant concerning the respective attitudes toward unification and national unity and, indirectly, toward the U.S., which in both Germany and in South Korea has been perceived as a major player in national affairs. The overwhelming majority of West Germans prior to unification did not believe they would live to see unity and were rather indifferent to the idea; thus any accusation that the U.S. was blocking unification was a nonstarter.
For a majority of South Koreans, however, national unification continues to be a serious concern and a strong desire. Moreover, continuous North Korean propaganda that the Americans (and their military presence in the South) stand in the way of national reunification has fallen on fruitful ground with many.
Various East German efforts to promote the “neutralization” of Germany as a stepping stone toward unification never had a serious impact on public opinion in West Germany for the stated reason.
There is one more structural explanation for the diverging intensity in anti-American sentiments in the two countries: While U.S.-West German relations have all along been embedded in the multilateral framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, U.S.-South Korean relations have from the very beginning been more or less confined to the bilateral level.
Therefore, in the case of Germany, most decisions of strategic relevance were taken in a multilateral setting (with Germany as a partner), and the U.S. acting — in the best of all cases — as “primus inter pares.” In the Korean strategic setting, important policy decisions are clearly identified and identifiable as solely U.S.-inspired. Structurally, bilateralism here has opened the door to the accusation of unilateralism.
In spite of these fundamental differences affecting German and South Korean international relations, there exist some important similarities: Both countries may be called middle powers, both are democratic republics, both have experienced national division and catastrophic wars.
All these political factors have affected the way South Koreans and Germans think and what they believe in. More recently, it has become apparent that the democratically elected governments of both nations are keen on participating actively in all decisions they believe affect their people directly or indirectly. Only if the U.S. government takes this shift of paradigm into account in its decision-making process will the growing trend of anti-American opinion in Germany and South Korea be halted.
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