Skip to main content

It is a cruel experiment: Take a tight-knit family, isolate half its members in a fenced-in enclosure and expose them and their descendants to a harsh and severely restricted life for a few decades. Then, suddenly, bring them back together. How long will it take to become a normal family again? Will they ever?

Koreans, after almost 75 years, are wondering how their version of this experiment will end. Most Korean scholars and politicians I’ve talked to believe that North and South Korea will become a single unified state again at some point in the coming decade, one way or another.

When it happens, they want to be ready – but nobody really knows what will happen. History has few examples of countries that have split and then reunited. The big example, Germany, is currently marking the 30th anniversary of its 11-month reunification odyssey, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, and ended with national reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.

Story continues below advertisement

That precedent – peaceful, quick, haphazardly planned and not yet really complete – is of great interest to Koreans, including one who is drawing up plans for his country’s eventual reconciliation.

Woo-ik Yu, a 69-year-old geographer, served as South Korea’s Minister of Reunification in the early years of this decade; he is now researching German reunification here in Berlin (we are both researchers at the Robert Bosch Academy, a think tank).

“We Koreans have the hindsight to have seen the German example,” Mr. Yu tells me. “We can learn from them.”

Leaders of the thriving democracy south of the 38th parallel and of the dictatorship to the north have both expressed a desire to bring Korea back together – although hopes have been dimmed by the intervention of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose talks on denuclearizing North Korea, now facing a Dec. 31 deadline imposed by Pyongyang, are likely to fail and could set relations back. The end might have to wait for the demise or overthrow of third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un – something that could happen in 10 years, or tomorrow.

“I think political change is the simple part. It can be done in 11 months," Mr. Yu says. "But changing the economic structure, from planned economy to market economy, it’s not as simple – it needs to be done much more carefully.”

He sees two big differences, shaped by the fact that North Korea is far poorer and more isolated than East Germany ever was, and by policy errors in 1990 that have left eastern Germany economically and socially dependent.

First, and most controversially, Mr. Yu thinks the Korean border should remain in place, and movement across it somewhat restricted, for a while. “If we lived for more than 70 years separated,” he says, “we can wait two or three years until it is stabilized.” Instead, he would offer powerful incentives for North Koreans to avoid moving southward – just as huge numbers of eastern Germans moved to the west in the 1990s, draining the region of its talent and knowledge.

Story continues below advertisement

By his calculation, without border controls, within a year after reunification three million North Koreans would move south, at least a million of them to Seoul.

“That’s unmanageable,” he says. “So you would need to have measures – paying people’s rent, guaranteeing their salaries – and publicize them, let them know that it is better to wait here than to move. This is a very important strategy for stabilizing the country.”

Second, he would keep factories open. In 1990, Germany created an enormous “trust agency” to restructure or sell off the assets of 8,500 state-owned corporations with four million employees. Most ended up abandoned, their employees either fleeing westward or becoming trapped in welfare dependency.

As Mr. Yu sees it, North Korea is part of a larger underinvested industrial area that includes the three Chinese provinces that border North Korea and are often known as China’s rust belt; with a single, open Korea, this whole region would become a potent investment.

“Many Korean industrialists are ready to devote themselves, if we are reunified, for the building project - not only for economic reasons, but also as a family,” he says. “If your wife is sick, you don’t calculate the cost.”

During 40 years apart, eastern and western Germans turned into perceptibly different people, a contrast that will be even greater in Korea. Mr. Yu hopes Koreans will remember the more than 1,200 years they spent as one people, and the 10 million people who have relatives on the other side of the border. “Korean people are eager to reunify,” he says, “and here in Germany, we have an example, one that on the whole was successful.”

Story continues below advertisement

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies