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The Peninsula

Insights from German Unification: Political Integration on the Korean Peninsula

Published September 30, 2015
Category: Inter-Korean

With Germany marking the 25th anniversary of unification this is the second 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 III on integrating the bureaucracy and the military 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

After the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the political unification of the two German states did not occur for nearly a year and only after free elections in East Germany had taken place. West Germany insisted on elections to legitimize the East German government prior to providing it with financial assistance needed to stabilize the country. The results of these elections would shape the process of unification.

In the first and only free elections in the German Democratic Republic’s history East Germans, voted for political parties that ran on a platform of unification. Having received a mandate to unify with the West, the new East German government engaged in talks with the West that in a short period of time outlined the terms under which the two states would achieve unification. The decision was made for the Lӓnder of East Germany to accede to the West Germany political entity and for the political institutions of West Germany to be graphed onto the former East German states. Their bureaucratic agencies would be remodeled to be compatible with those in the West.

However, while much of the West was implanted in the East and a process of transitional justice was undertaken to remove former officials from office, the process of political transition did not lead to a ban of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) which had led East Germany during Communism. In the run up to the March 1990 elections, the SED underwent a series of internal reforms and renamed itself the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). In time, the PDS would become the modern Left Party of Germany. The Left Party, while shunned by the major parties in Germany on the national level, is currently the third largest party in the Bundestag after having received 8.6 percent of the vote in 2013. In addition to the successor parties to the SED carrying on, some of the key figures from the days of the SED continued  in politics, such as Hans Modrow, who was prime minister prior to the free elections in March and went on to serve in both the German Parliament and the European Parliament.

While East Germans voted to join West Germany, one of the lingering issues is that they were not consulted on how the process should take place. This discontent is reflected in differences in the political cultures. In Germany, the political culture of the East has had difficulty adapting to the system. For example, both Germanys have a history of social welfare, but East Germans view social welfare as a structural component of the state, while for West Germans it is a political issue for the incumbent party to address. At the same time, turnout in the new federal states has decreased at a quicker rate than the western states, while there has also been more receptiveness to radical views in the political process.

The German experience raises a number of political questions for Korean unification. Regardless of whether there is a negotiated unification as in Germany or a complete collapse of the state that precludes a negotiated unification, should North Koreans be given a say on whether they join the Republic of Korea? East Germans voted for political parties in favor of unification, but should North Koreans be given more choice on how the process of unification takes place? One option would be to allow North Koreans to choose between accession, confederation, or independence. At the same time, should South Koreans also be given a choice in the matter?

If North Koreans are given a vote, a census will likely be need. This will take time and raises the question of whether in the case of a non-negotiated unification North Korea should be placed under a South Korean administered UN Trusteeship or modern equivalent. If collapse occurs the North may not be in a situation to hold a vote for a period of time before the reconstitution of society and the economy to a certain extent. A trusteeship would allow North Korea some space to restore stability and order, while also protecting South Korean equities. It would also allow the process of transition to begin on legal, economic, and political levels. At the same time, a vote on North Korea’s future would help to legitimize the democratic process in the North and set a precedent that decisions should be made in a democratic fashion.

Another question may be the future of the Korean Workers Party. As in the case of the SED, will it be allowed to reform itself and to remain a political party in the new Korea? If so, what officials would be able to run for office? Within 15 years of unification, an East German, Angela Merkel, became German Chancellor. Certain officials, such as Kim Jong-un, should be excluded from future political roles regardless of how unification comes about, but in the case of a negotiated unification or collapse determinations will need to be made on if all former party officials should be banned from political office or only those who have attained a certain level of political stature or have been guilty of crimes against humanity.

When unification takes place on the Korean peninsula, the process of political unification will be highly contingent upon the circumstances that brings about unification. The answers to the questions raised here about the political futures of individuals in the North will be significantly different if unification is achieved through a negotiated process or through complete collapse or conflict. Still, some insights into which officials should be allowed to remain might be seen in how Germany handled the integration of the two countries bureaucracies.

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 Bankenverband – Bundesverband deutscher Banken’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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