Lessons from German Unification for the Korean Peninsula

Term Paper, 2008

34 Pages, Grade: 85% = 2,0/A-/GPA 3.7


Table of Content


How was German unification achieved in 1989-1990?

Consequences of German Unification

‘Lessons’ for the Korean Peninsula based on the German Experience

Appendix – Maps of Germany from 1914-1990

Appendix II. – Functions of the Ministry of Unification



From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow (emphasis in original, Churchill, 1946).

This iron curtain divided Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany)[1] and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany)[2] from the end of the Second World War and the occupation by the four victorious Allied Powers until November 9, 1989. The strongest manifestation of the iron curtain and thus the Cold War in Europe was the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), which divided the former capital of Germany and was being build from August 1961 onwards. The government of the GDR decided to take such a radical measure to prevent the emigration or flight of skilled workers from East to West Berlin, which had gained momentum since the Arbeiteraufstand (Workers Uprising) of June 17, 1953. Even though, Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany declared, at a press conference in June, that “nobody has the intention of building a wall”[3] (Press Conference, 1961) The Berlin Wall divided the city for twenty-eight years until November 9, 1989. One year later, on October 3, 1990, Germany was unified again.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is slightly different, even though the division is also a direct outcome of the confrontation between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After the end of the Second World War in the Pacific and the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, Koreans themselves aspired to become independent after the end of Japanese occupation. However, the Allied victors decided, at conferences in Cairo (December 1943) and Yalta (February 1945) to divide the peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel for the time being. The Cairo Communiqué declared that “[t]he aforesaid three great powers [the US, the UK and China], mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent” (emphasis added, Cairo Communiqué, 1943). Thus, after the Japanese surrender, the Soviet Union occupied the peninsula north and the US south of the thirty-eighth parallel. Both occupying powers established state institutions in their respective areas and in 1948, the Republic of Korea (ROC, South Korea in August and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) in September were established[4] (US Library of Congress, 2005 & 2007).

The division of the Korean Peninsula was strengthened and made permanent by the Korean War (1950-1953). It was ended with an Armistice Agreement, reached by the United Nations, China and North Korea, that established a demilitarized zone around the thirty-eighth parallel as the dividing line between the two states. Technically North and South Korea are still in a state of war even today, because the President of South Korea “Syngman Rhee refuse[d] to sign the agreement” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2008). This division did not end at the beginning of the 1990s, as it did in Germany. In December 1991, an Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea was signed[5], which declared that “[i]n keeping with the longing of the entire Korean race for the peaceful unification of our divided fatherland” (1991 Agreement, 1991). Furthermore, it recognized “that their relationship, not being a relationship as between states, is a special one constituted temporarily in the process of unification” (Ibid.), which should be achieved peacefully. However, this agreement was never implemented and the Korean Peninsula is still divided.

Germany achieved what Korea still can achieve, namely peaceful unification. There are several similarities between the divided Koreas and the formerly divided Germanys. In both cases, the division grew out of the Second World War and the following Cold War. The divided nations have totally different systems of government. North Korea, as a communistic one-party state, is similar to the GDR and South Korea, as a democratic republic, is similar to the FDR.

Major differences are apparent in the economic development between North and South Korea, which again corresponds to the situation in Germany at the end of the 1980s. In light of these similarities, an important question to answer is the following one: what lessons can the Korean Peninsula learn from German unification? Thus, this essay will proceed as follows. Firstly, the developments in Germany, leading to the opening of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification will be described and analyzed. Secondly, the economic and socio-cultural outcomes of the unification will be briefly analyzed. Thirdly, recommendations for the Korean Peninsula will be formulated and finally, the essay will conclude its findings.

How was German unification achieved in 1989-1990?

The opening of the Berlin Wall and German unification was made possible by both internal German changes and by external changes in the Soviet Union. Firstly, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policies of perestroika (literally restructuring) and glasnost (literally openness) to prevent that the dissatisfaction of the masses in the Communist bloc leads to uprisings, as in the GDR (1953), Hungary (1956), and Prague (1968). These policies “envisione[d] radical reforms of the Soviet state, economy and society [and] Gorbachev open[ed] the door for democratization in the Eastern Bloc outside of the Soviet Union”[6] (Deutsches Historisches Museum I , n.d.). In July 1989, at a meeting of the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries, Gorbachev abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine[7] and that declared the relations between each other should be based on equality and full sovereignty – the Soviet guarantee of existence (Bestandsgarantie) for the communist regimes ceased to exist (Chronik der Mauer I, n.d.)

Secondly, at the same time, as the opportunities offered by Gorbachev’s reforms were pursued in other countries of the Eastern Bloc[8], the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, German Socialist Unity Party) clung to its power. Erich Honecker, the East German leader, declared in January 1989 “[t]he wall [. . .] will still exist in fifty and as well in 100 years”[9] (Chronik der Mauer II, n.d.), even though the economic disaster was already becoming obvious at that time. The population of the GDR made its dissatisfaction with the situation clear, to its own government, after Hungary opened it borders to Austria on May 2, 1989. Demonstrations started which demanded the freedom to travel and more than 100.000 people waited for the approval or granting of their Ausreiseantrag (travel/exit permit) by the government, which remained unmovable on this issue. Thus, during the summer vacation thousands of East Germans travelled to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and occupied the West German embassies to exert pressure on their own government to open its borders and to grant them the freedom to travel. At that time, the borders to Austria were still closed for East Germans, but the Hungarian government opened its border as well for East Germans on September 10, while the Czechoslovakian government was still reluctant to allow East Germans to travel through Czechoslovakia to Hungary and from there onwards to Austria and West Germany, which was the final destination. By the end of September, more than 10.000 East Germans refugees occupied the West German embassy in Prague and on September 30 the GDR yielded and allowed them to leave for West Germany (Ibid.). By November 1989, around 40.000 East Germans had left the GDR (Blacksell, 1997, p.260).

Thirdly, at the same time as the ‘exodus’ described was taking place, an opposition movement developed in East Germany, which was uncharacteristic for the population, because

East Germany possessed relatively cohesive elites ‘[. . .] coopted, subordinated, politically fragmented, easily exiled or allowed to leave for West Germany – an identical language community, with automatic rights of citizenship – potential counted elites never developed serious political momentum in East Germany, which could have placed the power or legitimacy of the ruling communist party in question’ (Ibid., p.259).

The government tried to ignore the opposition movement, which manifested itself, for example, through the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and trough groups such as New Forum (Neues Forum) and Democracy Now (Demokratie Jetzt), and continued the preparations for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR on October 7, 1989. These opposition groups did not have German unification as their aim or objective though. Their goal was to achieve internal democratic reform in East Germany and focused mainly on free elections, because, in May, council elections were manipulated by the government, which triggered the first major demonstrations against the regime. One of the famous slogans of the opposition movement was ‘We are the people’ (‘ Wir sind das Volk’) that was directly derived from the election fraud.

Nonetheless, the party celebrated the fortieth anniversary at the beginning of October, even though it realized that the population would protest on a large scale. The protests were disbanded with the use of massive force through the security forces of the GDR. The SED was not able to control the situation properly anymore and Erich Honecker resigned his posts on October 18. His successor, Egon Krenz, was not able to control and stabilize the situation and the complete government of East Germany resigned on November 7 (Deutsches Historisches Museum II , n.d; Chronik der Mauer III, n.d.).

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and the East German Wende (turning-point) was accomplished. Cries for unification with West Germany gained momentum after the opening of the wall and the slogan ‘We are the people’ was quickly changed into ‘We are one People’ (‘Wir sind ein Volk’). It should be kept in mind however, “that initially it [the Wende ] was a spontaneous popular movement for social and economic change that did not set out either to destroy East Germany, or to further moves toward German unification” (Blacksell, 1997, p.259). However, the Wende and the tumbling of the Berlin Wall were only the starting point for unification. Not only had the two German states to find an acceptable solution for themselves and the German population, yet also for their European neighbors, the US and the Soviet Union. A reunification or unification of Germany was not welcomed and even feared by some countries in Europe, especially those who suffered through German aggression during the twentieth century, for example France and Poland. It is important to make a distinction here between reunification, which could have meant including territories that had been German at the beginning of the twentieth century (i.e. territories east of the Oder-Neiße line) and unification, which meant the merging of the two German states in existence since 1949[10]. The later solution was seen, in Europe, as the less fearsome of the two, however, it still caused misgivings due to the enlargement of territory, population and the resulting increase of power the new German state would acquire.

With regard to these fears, the West German government moved cautiously at the beginning of November 1989. The German Foreign Minister H.-D. Genscher declared at a Western European Union (WEU) meeting in Brussels “that the Federal Republic would not endeavor a ‘national unilateral attempt in its foreign policy’”[11] (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2005), which meant in other words that unification was not an issue for the government of the Federal Republic when the Berlin Wall crumbled. During an official visit of Chancellor Kohl to Poland, he declared Bonn, at that time the West German capital, would guarantee and respect the Western border of Poland. In a speech before the German Bundestag (parliament), after his visit to Poland, Kohl emphasized “that West Germany would respect every decision, which the people of the GDR reach by free self-determination”[12] (Ibid.). This stance changed rapidly after a speech by Gorbachev, who declared “that [unification] was an ‘internal matter’ of the Federal Republic and the GDR”[13] (Ibid.). After this speech by Gorbachev the West German government realized that it could not stand idle on the sidelines of the events taking place in East Germany and demands for unification became also louder in West Germany.

The West German government, once the decision was made to strive for unification, did not let this historic opportunity pass untaken. Without the above-mentioned internal and external changes, at the end of the 1980s, the chances of German unification were always mediocre since the establishment of two German states in 1949 and particularly since the building of the Berlin Wall. By the end of November a Ten-Point-Program (Zehn-Punkte-Programm) that “envisioned the two Germanies [ sic ] gradually coming together as part of a confederation” (Blacksell, 1997, p.260) was published by the West German government. According to the Ten-Point-Program, the aim was to achieve unification, not reunification, slowly and with respect to the external European and Cold War factors, which had to be taken into account.

Internally, the German population, both in the East and the West, wanted a rapid unification, which nonetheless posed many problems and challenges, especially since the two states were at such different levels of economic development and had such different state structures. One the one side, the GDR as an inefficient socialist command economy and centralized authoritarian state and on the other side, the FRG as an efficient Soziale Marktwirtschaft (social market economy) and a democratic state. Particularly, the ‘economic experiment’ of transforming a centrally planned economy into a market economy had no predecessors in history and thus, the two states had to ‘start from scratch’ and try to develop adequate and feasible mechanisms how to transform the systems in the GDR and the FRG (Neumann, M.J.M., 1992, p.163). After the Volkskammerwahl (People’s Chamber elections) on March 18, 1990 in the GDR, which were the first free elections that were ever held in East Germany, it became obvious that the population of the GDR preferred rapid unification and a market economy over any type of reformed socialism[14], which they made clear with the votes they cast. The GDR writer Stefan Heym, disappointed about the election results, commented that “[t]here will be no GDR anymore. She will be nothing more than a footnote in world history”[15] (Chronik der Mauer IV, n.d.) and he proved to be right, because less than half a year later the GDR was absorbed by the FRG on October 3, but until that was achieved several treaties had to be negotiated and signed[16].


[1] The Federal Republic of Germany was established on May 23, 1949.

[2] The German Democratic Republic was established on October 7, 1949.

[3] Original in German (own translation): „Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.“

[4] Both the US and the Soviet Union withdrew their troops from the Korean Peninsula in 1949.

[5] It entered into force in February 1992.

[6] Original in German (own translation): „sieht grundlegende Reformen in Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft der Sowjetunion vor [und] Gorbatschow den Weg zur Demokratisierung der Ostblock-Staaten außerhalb der UdSSR“.

[7] The Brezhnev Doctrine, introduced in November 1968, declared “that the ‘socialist commonwealth as a whole’ had a right of intervention in the territory of any one of its members whenever forced hostile to socialism threatened its ideological alignment” (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p.57). Thus, the member states of the Communist Bloc did not have full sovereignty.

[8] The pursuit of these opportunities was also made possible through the deep economic and political crisis that the Soviet Union is experiencing by the end of the 1980s. Furthermore, Gorbachev never intended the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, his goal was to achieve reforms that would enable the Eastern Bloc to ‘survive’.

[9] Original in German (own translation): „Die Mauer [...] wird in fünfzig und auch in 100 Jahren noch bestehen bleiben“.

[10] For the territorial development of Germany from 1914 onwards please refer to Appendix I.

[11] Original in German (own translation): „dass die Bundesrepublik keinen ‚nationalen Alleingang in der Außenpolitik‘ unternehmen werde“.

[12] Original in German (own translation): „dass die Bundesrepublik selbstverständlich jede Entscheidung respektieren werde, die das Volk der DDR in freier Selbstbestimmung treffe“

[13] Original in German (own translation): „dass sie eine ‚interne Angelegenheit‘ der Bundesrepublik und der DDR sei“. However, Gorbachev changed his mind rather rapidly and by the beginning of December he was not convinced anymore that it was just an internal matter for the Federal Republic and the GDR.

[14] The Alliance for Germany [an aggregation of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Democratic Departure (Demokratischer Aufbruch, DA) and German Social Union (Deutscher Sozialer Union, DSU) received around 48 per cent of the vote; the Social Democrats (SPD) received around 22 per cent; and the Party of German Socialists (Partei Deutscher Sozialisten, PDS, which was the successor party of the SED) around 16,5 per cent (Chronik der Mauer IV, n.d.).

[15] Original in German (own translation): „Es wird keine DDR mehr geben. Sie wird nichts sein als eine Fußnote der Weltgeschichte.“

[16] The two most important ones will be discussed in this essay. The Wahlvertrag (Election Treaty), not mentioned in the essay, extended the electoral system of the FRG to the GDR and was also a prerequisite for unification.

Excerpt out of 34 pages


Lessons from German Unification for the Korean Peninsula
International Securtiy in East Asia
85% = 2,0/A-/GPA 3.7
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German, Unification, Korean, Peninsula, International, Securtiy, East, Asia
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MA Judith Becker (Author), 2008, Lessons from German Unification for the Korean Peninsula, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/88573


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