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The Peninsula

Insights from German Unification: Integrating the Bureaucracy and the Military

Published October 1, 2015
Category: Inter-Korean

With Germany marking the 25th anniversary of unification this is the third part of a five part series looking at insights from the German unification experience for the Korean peninsula. Part I on the challenges of integration can be found here. Part II on political unification can be found herePart IV on the social challenges of unification can be found herePart V on dealing with political prisoners can be found here.

By Troy Stangarone

While it is natural for there to be a desire for justice after a regime such as North Korea’s collapses, practical matters often intervene.  This is something Germany has experienced twice, both after the end of Nazi Germany and during unification in 1990 with different lessons from each experience. In the case of the transition from the Nazi regime, the Federal Republic of Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, noted their exclusion from public life needed to end by remarking that, “the machine has to operate”.

As Germany was preparing for unification in 1990, it was hoped that Western administrators would only need to play a short term role in restructuring the East. However, it soon became clear that their expertise would be needed on a long term basis. As a result, Germany placed West Germans in high level political and bureaucratic positions in the East to make up for the knowledge gaps. However, this led to its own problems. West German officials had little interest in learning about the problems in the East. In addition, the East Germans were all now in subordinate positions and because of the structural reforms undertaken to make the East German bureaucracy similar to that in the West there was little room for substantive contributions from the Eastern experience. Additionally, since East German bureaucrats were hired for loyalty rather than competence they were not always qualified for jobs in the new bureaucracy.

More generally, almost all of the top East Germans were removed from their position. For the most part West Germany tried not to lay off civil servants and those who worked for parts of the bureaucracy that were eliminated were often given a chance to find work at another agency. However, they could be laid off if: they had engaged in Stasi activities, an institution was eliminated, there was overstaffing, they had committed human rights violations or broken another law, or they lacked the necessary qualifications.

However, not all bureaucracies were handled the same. In the case of the education system, essentially all of the teachers of the former GDR were maintained while the system was reformed to reflect the West’s education system. All of the former foreign ministry officers were let go, as were the former Stasi officials. Former Stasi officials were barred from public positions. The East German police were required to have their political and professional history examined before being allowed back into the police service. As their East German training was often not recognized in the West, they were moved further down the ranks.

The East German military, the National Volksarmee or NVA, was disbanded upon unification. Any officer or soldier over the age of fifty-five was immediately let go from the military and those who were retained often had specialist skills required to maintain East German equipment. Integrating officers of the NVA into the West Germany military was difficult because they were seen as having sided with the enemy, the Soviet Union, and being the reason for the division of Germany.

If the German case is reflective of the challenges that Korea will face upon unification, efforts to improve the level and quantity of talent in the unified Korean bureaucracy will be essential. While maintaining as many North Koreans as possible to limit unemployment and resentment, as seen in more recent transitions such as Iraq, will be important, the quality of North Korean officials may not be very high. There may also be a need to design incentives to try to attract qualified private sector individuals form the South into the public sector as well. At the same time, the insights of former North Korean officials may be necessary to help smooth the transition in the North.

While the abilities of North Korean bureaucrats may not be high, there will also likely be integration issues relating to the slowing of career advancement by former North Korean officials in the new system, or as is the case of the military, strong push back against working with individuals that may be seen has having played a key role in maintaining the division of the peninsula.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Nico Trinkhaus’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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