Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, new states have been emerging in fast-moving sequence—whether through the secession of formerly ‘autonomous’ territories, or through the reunification of national states that had fallen into dependence and partition.footnote These would appear to be only the clearest symptoms that a phenomenon more or less forgotten, or anyway neglected, in postwar Europe has plenty of life left in it. A colleague of mine describes the situation as follows: ‘With the break-up of the imperial realms, the world of states is re-forming at borders marked by the origins of those states, whose contours are to be explained in national-historical terms.’footnote1 Today, the political future again seems to belong to the ‘ancestral powers’—primarily, religion and the nation. In the social sciences, the talk is of ‘ethno-nationalism’ which is a way of stressing a common heritage, whether in the physical sense of common descent or in the broader sense of a common cultural tradition.

An exception to this trend is the continuing division of the Korean nation.

This, no doubt, is the background to the request made by my hosts, to discuss the meaning of national sovereignty through the example of the German unification process, and to explain the problems that arose during the restoration of national unity. I must say in advance that I am no expert in contemporary history or political science, and that my competence is at most that of an attentive newspaper reader and of someone interested in the times in which he lives. But I can well see that the parallels between the postwar histories of our two countries, as well as certain analogies in the relationship between South and North Korea and between West and East Germany, make it seem desirable to examine whether Korea can learn something—and if so, what—from the example of Germany.

The most important aspects are already known to you. The division of the German and Korean nations was a consequence of that antagonism between the two world powers, the usa and the ussr, which came to the fore soon after the end of the Second World War. In Europe, after the defeat of the German Reich, partition naturally enough affected the party with the main guilt for the war, whereas in Asia, after the defeat of Japan, one of the victims freed from Japanese colonial rule was unjustly forced to suffer again alongside it. The Republic of Korea in the South and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North were proclaimed within a month of each other in 1948, and this was followed a year later, in the same order, by the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Strategically speaking, South Korea and West Germany were advance posts of the American protector. In a similar way in both countries, the ideological and military confrontation between the blocs overshadowed internal political contradictions stemming from the past—colonial rule or the Nazi period. This explains the continuity of leading personnel before and after 1945. Just as a large part of the old Nazis were taken into the new regime under Adenauer, so in Korea collaborators with the Japanese occupation authority were largely able to keep their positions under Syngman Rhee. Here, however, what fortunately remained a cold war in Germany escalated into open military conflict. The Korean War left behind a trauma which strained relations with the Communists in the North considerably more than anti-communism strained relations, in our case, with the rulers of the gdr. Nevertheless, the détente of the early seventies under Nixon had similar effects on both fronts. The joint communiqué on the reunification of Korea was signed by the two governments at the same time that the Basic Treaty between the two German governments was negotiated under Willy Brandt. The two Korean states, which intensified contacts with each other after 1989, were finally admitted to the United Nations only in 1991—as the two German states had already been before. Of course, the recent growth of tensions shows that national unification—which, as it were, fell into the lap of the citizens of the old Federal Republic at a lucky moment of world history—confronts the citizens of the Republic of Korea with a rather complicated task. Clearly North Korea, with its pressure for a peace treaty with the United States, is for the moment seeking to keep the partition in place.

After the end of the confrontation between the world powers, national unification seemed in Korea, too, to be politically within reach. At first sight, the state of things here between the North and the South seemed to be like that which existed between the West and the East in Germany. In 1989, a constitutional state stood facing an authoritarian state based upon surveillance of the population; on the one side, a dynamic, growing (despite conjunctural downturns), export-oriented economy, and on the other side, a centrally administered, unproductive system incapable of learning from experience. In Korea, a similar contrast still exists between a political system which since the late eighties has at least opened itself to democratization, and a regime which, even after the death of Kim Il Sung, does not seem to have lost much of its authoritarian character and which, even without China’s support, behaves in an aggressive manner. In a certain sense, the economic opposition is also repeated here—between a fast-moving export-oriented economy with high rates of growth, and an inefficient planned economy struggling with major supply problems and stagnating under the weight of its military expenditure. In short, this constellation gave rise in 1989 to the hope of a knock-on effect. Questions were then posed about the most suitable moment, the right political framework and procedure for such a unification: whether sooner or later, whether to make a merger of states or a confederation, whether there should be rapid absorption of the other part or a slow growing together. There were naturally also concrete questions about the policies that should be pursued to achieve this or that goal.

You will, of course, not expect me to answer these directly political questions, simply because I lack the necessary knowledge to give advice on policy. But there are also other reasons why caution is in order. The analogies that occur to us when we consider the postwar destinies of our two countries, both marked by a bipolar world order, tend to obscure from us a number of deeper structural differences. This is why we should be wary of rash extrapolations from the experiences of Germany. I shall now take things in three steps. First, I would like to recall the different starting-points that existed or still exist for national unification in Germany and in Korea. Then we shall move on to a problem which is very significant in Europe but perhaps in a different way in Asia: that is, the relationship between the national state and democracy. In the light of these considerations, it may be possible to learn something for a future reunification of Korea from Germany’s experience of a rapid, if not over-hasty, process of unification.

Let us first compare the People’s Republic of Korea and what used to be the German Democratic Republic. One of the distinguishing features of the former is its relatively greater share of the total population; less than a fifth of the German total lives in the Eastern Länder. North Korea has also preserved a relatively greater political independence, and the ‘juche’ principle affirms a certain ideological and political autonomy vis-mvis both Russia and China. For example, the People’s Republic kept its distance from Russian policy in Vietnam and Afghanistan as well as from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, whereas the gdr, if only for geopolitical reasons, always played the role of a Soviet satellite. Asto economics, the gdr was also firmly linked into the Eastern Bloc division of labour. Its leading cadre staunchly followed Moscow’s general line, and only in the mid-eighties—from fear of the destabilizing effects of Gorbachev’s glasnost—did they more clearly display a wish for national autonomy.