On the South Korean Version of German History— B.R. Myers

After months of isolation at a riverside house in Gyeonggi Province I now have to return to Busan for off-line classes. Yesterday, to ease my way back into society, I went to a Ministry of Unification event in Seoul to which I and a few dozen others, Korean and foreign, had been invited. The occasion was the launch of the Council on Unification Diplomacy.

I’d been out of circulation so long that I found myself paying attention to people’s appearances. Every male in attendance, I noticed, had a variation of the Erich von Stroheim haircut which Korean barbers offer the older gent as an alternative to the hegemonic Moe Stooge. Whereas I haven’t seen a pair of scissors since last spring. Getting the event underway, the moderator asked Andrei Lankov, sitting on my right, to introduce the lady on his left.

In their congratulatory remarks the Minister of Unification Lee In-young and former occupants of the office made clear  that unification diplomacy, the vagueness of which term had intrigued me, basically means persuading the world to support President Moon’s North Korea policy. Which is where we foreign Pyongyang watchers were to come in. An afternoon more hortatory than informative lay ahead. I decided I’d be able to make the 6 pm bus home after all.

But I sat up when Michael Reiffenstuel, the German ambassador, rose to say a few words. Will this be the time, I wondered, when an envoy from Berlin finally….? No, the message, while eloquently expressed, was the usual: Although unification took Germans by surprise, its foundations had been laid by Willy Brandt (1969-74), who opened the door for people-to-people contacts and exchanges that helped break down barriers, and it’s to be hoped that Korea too, though it will be a long process, etc.

This is the pat story of German unification one hears from South Koreans all the time. My question is why Germans always feel they must play along. They know full well that people-to-people contacts began before Brandt’s Ostpolitik — that they were agreed upon at the very height of Cold War tension, by two superpower-loyal governments that loathed each other.  It was in 1964 that East German pensioners became able to spend up to a month in West Germany. Postal and telephone connections had been in regular use since the late 1940s.

So much then for the popular notion that Washington, the sanctions regime or “Cold War mentality” — or as the right-wingers would have it, communism — is to blame for the two Koreas’ inability to sustain the most minimal forms of humanitarian exchange and cooperation. Even routinizing online family reunions is too challenging for Seoul and Pyongyang.

Also untenable is the notion that German unification resulted organically from economic cooperation and displays of mutual recognition. As most German historians agree, that stuff actually strengthened the Honecker regime, which was the very reason no one expected it to collapse. A close friend of mine, whom I’d got to know in Görlitz in 1983, risked her life to escape via a third country in 1988. A man less fortunate died trying to escape in a hot air balloon in 1989, mere months before the Berlin Wall fell. It fell quite suddenly and despite Ostpolitik, for the simple reason that the USSR publicly withdrew support for Honecker. (See Margit Roth’s excellent book Innerdeutsche Bestandsaufnahme der Bundesrepublik 1969-1989, Wiesbaden, 2013.)

Of course there might have been more inter-German unpleasantness had a confrontational relationship persisted. But good relations certainly didn’t hasten unification, and there are grounds for arguing that they delayed it. Even the destabilizing effects of heightened East German access to Western culture, media, etc — which the North Koreans blame for what happened — appear to have been neutralized by the increase in surveillance and oppression with which the Honecker regime felt compelled to protect itself. (We saw a similar dynamic on a smaller scale in Kaesong, when the joint industrial zone was in operation.)

The Federal Foreign Office describes human rights on its website as “a cornerstone of German foreign policy.” If this is so, its diplomats should refrain from colluding in a misrepresentation of their country’s history that is often deployed to discourage criticism of the Kim regime. It’s unfortunately true that Bonn didn’t say much about Honecker’s violations of human rights, but behind the scenes it was at least committed to buying the freedom of political prisoners.

That practice began under Adenauer in the early 1960s. Ludwig Rehlinger, who was one of the responsible government officials — and who celebrated his 94th birthday last week — wrote a marvelous book on the subject called Freikauf: Die Geschäfte der DDR mit politisch Verfolgten 1963 – 1989 (Berlin, 1991).

Especially moving is the part where he discusses one of the first East German prisoners released. A carpenter by profession, the man had been given a life sentence by the Soviet Military Administration for an offense no one could clarify. He had no family. No one had shown interest in his case. He had no clue of the wheels suddenly turning on his behalf. One day he was taken uncomprehendingly out of prison and handed over to West German lawyers in East Berlin.

They took the carpenter by S-Bahn to West Berlin, then drove him to an office building and gave him a cup of coffee. The lawyers later reported that (my translation)

he was very quiet, looking mutely around him and incredulously taking in his surroundings. As he recognized the reality, and grasped that he was actually free, he collapsed in shock. The only words he could manage to bring forth were, “That somebody thought of me.”

Reading this reminded me how much goes undiscussed here lest it complicate the pursuit of the great abstract goals of peace and unification. There’s a lot to be said for the West Germans’ relative interest in quiet, steady humanitarian improvements, and in the fates of individual human beings. It would be nice if German diplomats said it.

Source: sthelepress.com

On the South Korean Version of German History— B.R. Myers