During my time at MOU, Korean unification was often, quite understandably, compared to German re-unification. Being from Germany I found this particularly interesting, especially as the sentence “if the Germans can do it, we can do it too” was uttered more than once or twice. As compelling of an example this may be and as much as Korean unification is a desire shared by everyone, one should not forget that this comparison can, at best, be made partially.
As with almost everything, “history matters” and is therefore a good starting point. Despite the obvious post-cold war comparison, one tends to forget that Germany is a country that has been unified three times (1871, 1957 and 1990). Germany therefore has significantly more experience with respect to unification than Korea, a fact that I personally believe to be extremely important but that is unfortunately rarely talked about. While the first Germanic tribes date back to 750BC, the concept of “one Germany” did not really exist and only came into existence in 1871, as a result of Bismarck’s efforts. Simon Winder neatly summarizes this in his entertaining yet informative book Germania: “But one of the oddities of German history is the degree to which no boundaries are every really fixed, with each major national group and sub-group gaining power over its neighbor at different points and generating a variety of tragically overlapping myths as to who rightly rules over whom and in what area”.
By contrast, the Korean peninsula enjoyed a shared history for more than 1000 years during the Goryeon and Joseon dynasties. According to Korea Unmasked by Won-bok Rhie (a great, entertaining and informative read), “Korea bolted its doors, and its people were prevented from mixing and mingling with foreigners”. As such, Korea developed its own unique culture and customs. Given this, one can understand that Korea has a very strong sense of national identity and common/shared history. This rigid bond is much stronger than in Germany and now having been unfortunately broken for almost 60 years, is all the more difficult to repair. Rather than drawing the one-hundredth comparison to the West/East German case, I therefore believe that it is vital to recognize the uniqueness of the situation on the Korean peninsula. Doing this will lead to a much-needed unique solution with respect to achieving Korean unification.