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The Unification Cases of Germany and Korea: A Dangerous Comparison (Part 1 of 2)

03 November 2016

twokoreas_istock_25898184_xlargeGermany’s unification in 1990 has remained a popular model for future Korean unification, with its precedents on issues like the transfer of legal systems and technical standards, requirements for infrastructure investment, unification costs and social aspects.

A closer look, however, reveals that the differences between Germany and Korea far outweigh any similarities. This issue is not just an academic question; wrong assumptions can lead to wrong conclusions and to wrong policies. In the best case, such missteps would only waste money. In the worst case, however, they could lead to mismanagement of the unification process, with potentially disastrous consequences in the social, economic and security spheres.

In 1995, I wrote an article questioning the comparability of Germany’s reunification and the hypothetical case of Korea, and I find my arguments still to be valid.[1] The numerous differences between the cases form six clusters, which I will present in two parts for the sake of readability.

In the first part, I cover two large clusters of differences: 1) the influence of external forces on unification; and 2) domestic attitudes towards unification in both Koreas.

In the second part, I discuss whether the German model is relevant for estimating the costs of Korean unification; how one side will likely be dominant over the other and how that will affect the general process of political, economic and social integration. Last but not least, I examine the differences between the German and Korean cases that now exist but are about to disappear.

Differences That Will Impact the Influence of External Forces on Unification

Legal status: German unification was a multilateral issue, whereas Korean unification would be a bilateral matter. By 1990, Germany was legally required to get permission from the four World War II allied powers to reunify. Not all of the allies were enthusiastic, considering the role a strong Germany had played in Europe in the 20th century. This problem was only overcome with massive support from then-US president George H.W. Bush and through major concessions to France and the UK with regard to the emerging European Union, which, appears to have been a mechanism to tame the German giant. The Soviet Union was offered substantial economic support to gain approval. The result was the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty.[2]

In the Korean case, an important international legal problem to overcome in the context of unification is the conclusion of a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Since the country was divided in 1948, prior to the start of the Korean War, a unification treaty does not necessarily have to address the end of the war, although it seems reasonable to expect the resolution of the peace treaty issue first. This is one reason why North Korea keeps bringing up this point in talks with the United States.

If the two Koreas decide to negotiate reunification, no external powers need to be consulted. Interference by neighbors is nevertheless to be expected, but their legal means of doing so will be limited. Therefore, from the perspective of international law, unification of the two Koreas will likely be easier and in any case very different compared to Germany.

Foreign troops: Prior to Germany’s unification, hundreds of thousands of heavily armed foreign troops were stationed on both sides. In Korea, fewer than 30,000 foreign troops are present in the South and none are in the North. Foreign troop withdrawal from North Korea will not be an issue after unification. The actual circumstances of unification, however, might tempt the US to maintain its presence on the peninsula in a bid to repeat what NATO’s Eastern expansion did in Europe—leave no vacuum and block the potential advance of a strategic adversary.

Geopolitical environment: The two Germanys were part of opposing sides during the Cold War. Their border ran through Europe’s densely populated and highly developed central region. Any invasion route either towards the West or the East would have crossed Germany. The Korean peninsula, by contrast, is on the periphery of the continent and only shares a border with the Northeastern provinces of China and a 17-kilometer division from a sparsely populated area of Russia’s Far East. North Korea is not part of any military block. The Cold War is long over, though a “Cold War 2.0” is developing, this time with the United States and China being the major strategic competitors. The impact of this situation is complex, and it will certainly differ from the German case.

Differences That Will Impact Domestic Attitudes Towards Unification

Origin of division: Both countries were divided as a consequence of World War II. But while Germany’s division was by many seen as a form of punishment for one of the war’s aggressors, the Koreans were among the victims of Japanese aggression and thus regard their division as a great injustice. This history impacts the acceptance of division in both Koreas and adds a nationalist undertone to the unification debate.

West Berlin: This factor is among the most underappreciated. Complicated legal status notwithstanding (West Berlin was technically not a part of West Germany),[3] the divided capital city gave millions of (East) Germans a direct and daily encounter with the absurdity of division. They had ample opportunity to bump into the Berlin Wall, where they could hear life and see buildings, streets and neon signs on the other side. The West cleverly exploited this division, holding rock concerts[4] right at the Wall, for example. Korea has nothing even remotely comparable; the reactivated propaganda loudspeakers at the DMZ penetrate only a small distance into a sparsely populated area. Because Koreans have no everyday tangible experience of division, the resulting pain and frustration are smaller.

Naming: East and West Germany both called their country “Deutschland”[5] and their nationality “Deutsch.” In Korea, the North uses “Chosŏn” and the South uses “Han’guk.” Unless a compromise such as “Koryŏ” can be found, the dominance of one side will express itself in the very naming of the unified country. This may intensify feelings of colonization and fuel social conflict after unification. The same danger lingers in the choice of a unified Korea’s capital. The Germans made the Solomonic decision to choose Berlin, which was half West and half East. But how will Koreans in the North feel being governed from Seoul?

Ideological barriers: By the time of unification, aside from relatively soft propaganda wars, East and West Germans had no major axes to grind against each other. They had not fought a civil war nor tried to assassinate each other’s politicians. Koreans, however, tortured and killed each other during the Korean War and continued to do so thereafter.[6] This is a heavy legacy that must be overcome to make unification work. Dealing with the past will be a much bigger challenge for Korea. The still lingering problem of South Korea’s society to come to terms with the colonial past and the legacy of the military dictatorships under Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan provides no reason for optimism in this regard.

Ideological similarities: Due to the German invasion of European countries during World War II, West Germany only reluctantly allowed nationalism to grow while East Germany vigorously suppressed expressions of nationalistic sentiment.[7] During unification, Germany’s European neighbors watched closely to determine whether it would become a threat again. German nationalism was therefore completely banned from official discourse, preventing its use as a much-needed unification ideology. Germans from the East and the West still, after more than a quarter of a century, have different identities. In Korea, nationalism grew especially strong in resistance against Japanese attempts at assimilation during the occupational period and is still widely accepted today in both parts of the peninsula. It can serve as a joint ideological foundation for a unified Korea. Using nationalism to “grow together,” to paraphrase former German Chancellor Willi Brandt, thus will be much easier than it was in the German case. On the other hand, a unified Korea will have to manage the resulting concerns of neighboring countries.

Contacts: Decades before unification, East Germans could visit their relatives in West Germany on special occasions, such as around birthdays. East Germans of pension age could travel to West Germany regularly and move there freely. From 1980 to 1988, the number of recorded visits by East Germans to West Germany and West Berlin rose from 1.6 million to 7.8 million.[8] West Germans could travel to East Germany at any time, although registration was required and their movement was restricted. They could also use East German highways to drive through the country. There were daily phone calls and exchanges of letters. In the case of Korea, no people-to-people contacts exist except a few infrequent organized reunions of senior citizens.

Knowledge about the other side: Thanks to regular people-to-people exchanges and the legal availability of TV and radio programs on both sides, Germans had a fairly good understanding of each other. After unification, however, even this rather solid knowledge turned out to be often insufficient. The disastrous state of the East Germany economy, for instance, only became obvious to West German politicians after unification, and East Germans only knew what unemployment actually meant when they were personally affected. People in the two Koreas know much less about each other; North Koreans know almost nothing about reality in the South, except for the idealized images conveyed through smuggled soap operas. The South Koreans are equally banned from North Korean media[9] and direct contact, so perceptions of the North are shaped by propaganda and stereotypes. The post-unification reality shock therefore will be much bigger for the Koreans than it was for the Germans.

Number of defectors: In the 28 years between the construction of the Wall in 1961 and the peaceful revolution in 1989, a total of 3.5 million East Germans (on average 0.8 percent of the population per year) resettled in West Germany. In stark contrast, during the 63 years between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and 2015, only about 29,000 North Koreans (on average 0.002 percent of the population per year, or 400 times less in relative terms) resettled in South Korea. This is a complex topic, as the low number of North Korean defectors is itself a reflection of prevailing attitudes and structures. South Korea still does not encourage defection as much as West Germany did, even though recent statements by President Park seem to indicate a change in that policy.

Legitimacy of government: In East Germany, the government had long before unification lost the support of most of its people. Jokes about leading figures were popular and made rather openly. In North Korea, the leaders are highly revered and open criticism is very rare. Mass demonstrations leading to a change of system and government are not to be expected at the moment, although the outer appearance of strong internal coherence can be misleading. A growing number of recent informal visitor reports of openly expressed criticism indicate that the situation might indeed be changing, but such a process takes time to severely weaken government legitimacy.


After looking at only two out of six clusters of arguments, we already see that a closer look at Germany and Korea reveals a large number of differences. Some of them are seemingly minor, such as the naming problem, while others are potentially more weighty, like geopolitical positions and international legal considerations. We see that the image of two very different cases emerges, making a simple comparison highly questionable. This impression is further strengthened in the second part of this discussion, where we look at important areas such as unification costs and the relative power of both sides.



[1] A small selection: Rudiger Frank, “German Unification: Of Relevance for Korea?,” Korea-Forum 1-2 (1995): 9-11;  “독일 통일은 한국에 대한 모범인가?,” in독일 통일은 한국에 대한 모델인가? ed. Zanghyon Bak (Seoul: Munwŏn, 1999); Rudiger Frank, “The Political Economy of Unification: North Korea and Implications of the German Experience,” in Troubled Transition. North Korea’s Politics, Economy, and External Relations, ed. Choe Sang-Hun, Gi-Wook Shin and David Straub (Stanford: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center), 229-254.; Rudiger Frank, “Unification and Capacity Building: The German Experience and its Declining Relevance for Korea,” in Crisis of Peace and New Leadership in Korea, ed. Chung-in Moon and John Swenson-Wright (Seoul: Yonsei University Press), 129-161.; Rudiger Frank, “The Costs of Korean Unification: Realistic Lessons from the German Case,” Korea’s Economy 30 (2016): 93-100,

[2] For the full text in German, see: “Vertrag über die abschließende Regelung in Bezug auf Deutschland,” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1990,,0,0,Vertrag_%C3%83%C6%92%C3%82%C2%BCber_die_abschlie%C3%83%C6%92%C3%82%C5%B8ende_Regelung_in_Bezug_auf_Deutschland.html.

[3] This made the city a popular place for young West German men who wanted to avoid being conscripted into military service and therefore moved to West Berlin.

[4] For example, Barclay James Harvest appeared in 1980, David Bowie, Genesis and the Eurhythmics in 1987, and Pink Floyd in June 1988.

[5] East Germany was quite reluctant to use this term and tried to circumvent it, because “Deutschland” was associated with imperial ambitions and the Nazi period. It did not, however, come up with an alternative term.

[6] A small selection: the assassination attempt against Park Chung-hee in 1968 that killed the mother of the current South Korean president, the bombing of Korean Air flight 858 in 1987, the sinking of the ship Cheonan in 2010. We know little about South Korean terrorism against North Korea, but the example of Unit 684 (as made popular through the movie “Silmido”) provides a glimpse. See Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past,” New York Times, February 15, 2004,

[7] This is not to say that such attempts were successful. Besides, especially during the 1980s when Soviet interference got weaker, the GDR experienced a careful neo-nationalist revival driven from the top. The rediscovery of the Prussian heritage in Berlin or the Saxonian heritage in Dresden is just one example.

[8] Clemens Vollnhals ,  Jahre des Umbruchs. Friedliche Revolution in der DDR und Transition in Ostmitteleuropa (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 109.

[9] Websites such as those of the Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun or the news agency KCNA are blocked on South Korea’s internet.

Reader Feedback

7 Responses to “The Unification Cases of Germany and Korea: A Dangerous Comparison (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. 38 North says:

    @Steve: We expect to publish Part II later this week. Stay tuned!

  2. Steve says:

    So, when will part 2 be coming out? I think that most of us have thoroughly digested part 1 by now.

    There will certainly be many challenges in reunification in Korea, many of which were not experienced in Germany’s reunification. It is difficult to imagine a willing agreement on either side that could result in a relatively peaceful reunification as was experienced in Germany. The baby steps like the Kaesong complex, rail lines from Vladivostok, and increased trade with China all seem to be steps in the right direction.

  3. Kostadinov says:

    “The disastrous state of the East Germany economy, for instance, only became obvious to West German politicians after unification”.
    1. The East German economy became in “disastrous state” only after, and as result, of the unification. Typical examples are the administrative liquidation of the East German national air carrier Interflug, the nuclear power plant etc.
    2. In North Korea almost all scientists and engineers in the nuclear field, missile and other military equipment development, officers of the People army, low level party officials, artists, journalists, writers, etc. will have to look fot another job. This is a huge number of the most capable and active people not only in North but in whole Korea.

  4. Bourgogne says:

    One very important issue that needs addressing is the gender issue among the Koreas. Differences in this area between North and South abound. More research needs to be cultivated that addresses the issues Korean citizens will face in during the unification process and aftermath. Right now there is to much political and government analysis to move the issue forward. Politics and government are the smaller parts of the larger process of unification in Korea.

  5. jakob says:

    The recent scandal in Seoul might hasten a revival of discussions between the North and The South. Renewed talks should lesson tensions on the Peninsula, but it also means that Mme. Park has to step down and the new AAmerican administration revive talks with Pyongyang too.

  6. comaguer says:

    Hello !
    To understand how East germany was spoiled and destroyed by the west , an very good book by an italian economist VLADIMIRO GIACCHE
    Title in french : “Le Nouvel Anschluss”

    It’s explain why to day and for decades – estimated to at least 50 years – to come the eastern provinces will remain backward and the poorest in Germany


  7. anon says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. During my time at school, I also pondered on the comparisons of the West/East Germany and how it may or may not be applicable to the Koreas. I’m glad someone has put some time and thought into thinking this through.

    Looking forward to the next part.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.