Prospects for Korean Unification

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

September 1, 2003

Reprinted with permission of the Association for Asian Studies.

At one minute past midnight on October 3, 1990, Germany was officially reunified, ending 45 years of national division. On that night I was standing in
the middle of 70,000 spectators at Deutches Eck (the “corner of Germany”) in the city of Koblenz, at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers. This historic location, a symbol of German nationalism since the 13th century, was to be one of the principal sites for the national unification celebration. Yet I could not discern any particular mood among the assembled Germans. It was as if they had gathered simply because they thought they might be missing something if they didn’t. At midnight, the mayor of Koblenz solemnly intoned the names of the five East German states: “I call Sachsen for unity, I call
Brandenburg for unity” and so forth. There was no cheering.
Just people engaged in conversation, while in the background boats on the river sounded their horns and church bells rang.

I seemed to be the only Korean in a sea of Germans, and the
occurrence made me excited and sad. I thought of the millions of
dispersed family members in Korea, including my own. My father, the youngest of 11 children, visited his family in Pyongwon County, north of Pyongyang, when he returned to Korea from Beijing after the Japanese surrender in 1945. He then left for Seoul to take up a position in education. He managed to go north to visit his family twice in the next few years, as the communists tightened their grip on the northern half of the country, but after 1948 he could no longer risk the trip. He died, just five months after German reunification, without ever seeing or hearing from his family again. My visit to Koblenz on that historic night was in part a tribute to my father, who even at that moment was hoping for a chance to take me to the north to look for his family.

In the months after unification, I asked my German friends what they thought about the event. The younger ones complained about the higher tax burden imposed to rescue the economy of east Germany, but the older ones accepted unification as an
unavoidable political fate for all Germans. A typical expression
was “Wir müssen” (we must). I visited towns and cities in the
eastern half of the country and saw everywhere signs of economic
and social decay. The unification burden on west Germany was, and continues to be, heavy, but the Germans have shouldered it with a spirit of “must do” and “can do.”

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