East Germany as Role Model
A couple of weeks ago I participated in a conference on unification sponsored by the Asiatic Institute at Korea University. In my presentation I contrasted two pathways to unification: a protracted consensual negotiated process, and an abrupt collapse and absorption scenario along the lines of the German experience. One of the discussants, Oliver Sperling of the German embassy, diplomatically objected to my verbal shorthand, pointing out that German unification was a consensual process, though we continued to dispute politely whether it was protracted or not. But apart from our dispute over the historical particulars, Sperling’s comment raises deeper issues of how apt the German example might, or might not, be.
First, a quick review of history: the late 1980s were a period of stagnation in the Soviet Union which leader Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to jumpstart through economic and political reforms known respectively as perestroika and glasnost. The developments in the USSR together with the earlier imposition of martial law in Poland, fed the sense of socialism’s failure among increasingly restive populations in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Rumors of a Soviet deal on Germany began circulating in May 1987, but were widely discounted. But two years later the story re-emerged widely in the press. When in May 1989, Hungary, which due to its political history maintained a relatively open border with Austria, opened its border with East Germany, thousands of East Germans began transiting via Hungary to the West and sparked a political crisis in East Germany. In September, as it became apparent that unlike Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets under Gorbachev would not intervene militarily, mass demonstrations began. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, the border with West Germany was opened, and the East German regime began to implode. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl unveiled a ten point program of intensified cooperation with East Germany. Subsequent developments telescoped the timeline, however.
In March 1990 the communists were turned out in East Germany’s first (and last) free election, which brought to power a coalition led by Christian Democrat Lothar de Maizere, in my book one of history’s unsung heroes. The process of integration accelerated dramatically. In May the two states signed a treaty agreeing on a monetary, economic and social union, which came into effect in July. The following month the East German parliament passed a resolution seeking merger with West Germany under that country’s Basic Law or constitution and a unification treaty was signed and passed both countries’ parliaments by large margins in September 1990. Unification officially occurred at midnight 3 October 1990. It had been less than one year since the Wall had come down.
There are two broad implications in this history for Korea. First, the political cultures of East Germany and North Korea differ considerably. The population of East Germany had real experience with democracy in the interwar years, and despite Stasi repression, East Germany did not experience the evisceration of civil society the way North Korea has. Today’s German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor—it’s hard to imagine the equivalent in the North Korean milieu. And it was not just an issue of historical memory: many East Germans could view West German television and most could receive West German radio—the population of East Germany was not nearly as insulated from broader world culture as are North Koreans today. And the degree of inter-German personal exchange was vastly higher than inter-Korean exchange is today (see Avoiding the Apocalypse table 8.3).
And, as Sperling reminded us, the actual mechanics of German unification were democratic and consensual. This matters enormously: because there was an overwhelming consensus in East Germany for unification, and the process by which East Germany ceased to exist as an independent sovereign state was a voluntary one supported by public consent, Germany was not plagued by violent opposition to the new regime.
The potential contrasts to the Korean case are stark. North Korea lacks the democratic traditions and civil society institutions which were preserved, at least in embryonic form, in East Germany. And depending on the process by which unification is achieved, there is no guarantee that Korean unification would be the smooth, non-violent process that was achieved in Germany. Given the political institutions and degree of militarization of North Korean society there is tremendous potential for sustained quasi-revanchist violent opposition to a new regime.
As an economic modeler it is easier to model collapse and absorption than protracted consensual unification—the border disappears, the economic institutions are unified, and all those messy sanctions issues become moot. But make no mistake: this is an issue of modeling convenience, not reality. As the US has learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq, sustained violent political opposition can completely derail economic rehabilitation and development. So when I tell my South Korean friends to pray for an East German-style collapse of the North, I’m not kidding: there is no guarantee that the Korean case will be voluntary and democratic rather than anarchic and violent.