Healing divisions The lessons of German reunification – for South Korea

Germany's president recalled Willy Brandt's policy of détente with East Germany as he visited the Korean Peninsula amid easing tensions.
Quelle: dpa
Walking down memory lane.
(Source: dpa)

Official gifts are usually just another duty in the endless protocol of state visits. But the gift that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave on Thursday to his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, could be a keeper.

The portrait of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, painted by the artist Armin Mueller-Stahl, has great symbolic power because it is reminiscent of Germany’s past as a divided country.

What many Koreans still dream of became reality in Germany almost 30 years ago: unity and disarmament. Willy Brandt was a pioneer of the détente between East and West Germany. Shortly before the Olympic Winter Games kick off in Pyeongchang, many hope for a similar spirit on the Korean Peninsula.

Against considerable resistance at home, Mr. Moon has embarked on a course of rapprochement with the dictatorship in the North. Upon receiving Mr. Steinmeier’s gift, Mr. Moon promised, “I want to continue the spirit of Ostpolitik.”

I want to continue the spirit of Ostpolitik. Moon Jae-in, South Korean President

Germany peacefully ended its decades-long division in 1990. But Mr. Steinmeier also urged his host to avoid historical analogies. “The current situation in Korea is very different from our own experience,” he said in an interview with the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo. “East Germany never posed a threat to its neighbors in the way North Korea does today. And frankly, East and West Germany were never as divided politically and socially as North and South Korea are today.”

Only if North Korea halts its missile tests can tensions over the North’s nuclear program be eased. Nonetheless, Mr. Steinmeier sees the Winter Olympics as an opportunity for dialogue between the two countries.

In a historic move, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will travel to South Korea to lead the Pyongyang delegation. It is seen as a sign of thawing tensions. North Koreans will march under one flag with South Koreans during the opening ceremony on Friday.

In sober German fashion, Mr. Steinmeier told Chosun Ilbo, “No one should harbor any illusions.” Germany belongs to a handful of European countries that have diplomatic relations with North Korea. It still has an embassy in the capital, Pyongyang, but ties are strained. Last week, reports emerged that North Korea allegedly used its Berlin embassy to acquire high-tech equipment for its missile and nuclear programs.

Germany is going through tumultuous political times, too. Mr. Steinmeier’s Asia visit – two days in Japan and four days in South Korea – have been overshadowed by political turmoil at home. During his visit in Seoul, President Moon congratulated him that his Social Democratic Party reached a coalition deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative alliance.

Mr. Steinmeier will attend the opening ceremony of what Mr. Moon calls the “Olympic Games of Peace” together with other world leaders on Friday.

Willy Brandt once said: “Even if two states exist in Germany, they are not foreign countries. Their relations with each other can only be of a special kind.” It remains to be seen whether North and South Korea can find a way forward together, too.

Moritz Koch is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin, Stephanie Ott is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].