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The Peninsula

Insights from German Unification: The Social Challenges of Unification

Published October 2, 2015
Category: Inter-Korean

With Germany marking the 25th anniversary of unification this is the fourth 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 here. Part III on integrating the bureaucracy and the military can be found here. Part V on dealing with political prisoners can be found here.

By Troy Stangarone

One of the most difficult internal challenges Korea will face after unification is integrating the North Korean population into South Korean society. At the time when East and West Germany united, a significant amount of interaction between the two societies had taken place and for some there was the memory of living within a market economy and democracy from the time of the Weimar Republic, despite that period’s flaws. In the case of Korea, the two societies have had significantly less interaction. Beyond the limited family number of family reunions, the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, and pirated South Korean media, the North Korean population has essentially been isolated from South Korean society. As a result, the social gap after unification is likely to be larger than the two Germanys faced.

After unification, North Koreans will find themselves in a society very different than the one they know. The new society will have a different set of values and norms based in individual rights, democracy, and a market based economic system. On a basic level, North Koreans will face deficits with their South Korean counterparts in terms of education and health. As they try to navigate these challenges they will find that the Korean language has evolved differently on each side of the DMZ. All of this will make finding gainful employment more difficult, while fitting into society will be challenging as simple things taken for granted in the South, such as how to use the internet or drive a car, will be foreign to most North Koreans other than the elite. Many who have survived in North Korea have done so by breaking the rules or engaging in activities, such as the markets, whose legal status has been uncertain at times will now have to adjust to a society where they will be expected to follow the rules.

These difficulties can be seen in both the experience of Germany over the last quarter century and the challenges faced by North Koreans who have escaped to the South. When Germany integrated, East Germans faced a host of challenges. Not only did they have to adjust to an entirely different system and ideological perspective related to democracy and a market economy, they faced new challenges such as dealing with unemployment and social relations that were based in money. They also had to adjust to things that Westerners take for granted such as the need to have insurance and the workings of a banking system, while adjusting in a world where tensions between the two sides would manifest through demeaning comments such as West Germans saying they had moved to the colonies.

Unification left the two societies existing in parallel. This divide, or mental wall between the two peoples, in recent years a sense of nostalgia for the former GDR has developed, often referred to as Ostalgie. Having been socialized in the East German system, many East Germans came to look back on the old system with either fondness or maintain some of its ways of thinking.

Even the young faced challenges adjusting to the new society. Unification had brought a tension between the two dominant ideologies of the East and the West as individualism and collectivism were partially incompatible. In the case of East Germany, while young adults adopted Western values, they did not necessarily internalize them as “the new generation born after the reunification of Germany still shares, albeit to a significantly smaller extent, the behavior models and mindsets which developed in the generations of their grandparents and parents”. An early study done on East German attitudes found that a plurality of East Germans and West Germans identified more with their original system than the new unified Germany. East Germans were also less likely to see Germany’s market based values as a source of security.

Even two decades after unification cultural differences still exist. The East and West share different views of religion and social issues such as abortion. They have different views of the role of women in society, with Easterners being more progressive about the role of women. How they define professional success remains different, and even small things such as how one is greeted or the nature of small talk maintain differences.

While North Koreans do have access to information about the South through movies and DVDs, for example, remnants of the old system will likely remain in their thinking and world view as they transition to a new society. Managing these differences, while providing the necessary skills and tools to North Koreans to adjust, will be a critical issue as unification proceeds. Additionally, as the experience of young German’s demonstrates, social and cultural integration will be a multi-generational process rather than a process that takes place in a single lifetime.

As mentioned, integrating North Koreans into South Korean society poses a range of questions. Beyond the experience of Germany, there is also the experience of North Korean defectors in South Korea which can provide some insight into the challenges North Koreans will face in integrating into South Korean society.

While there have been some successes, especially among former members of the elite, many defectors struggle to integrate into South Korean society. Despite the support from the South Korean government and programs designed to help defectors integrate into society, North Koreans still face a series of impediments to full integration into South Korean society. These impediments can largely be broken into five categories: cultural/ideological, professional, personal, psychological, and social prejudice. Though, many of these impediments overlap, such as decisions to live alone in South Korea that can impact personal happiness but also have a psychological root.

For many North Koreans, arriving in South Korea can be a culture shock as the norms and values they grew up with are challenged by those in the South. While many in North Korea are poor, they grow up in a largely communal environment and are unprepared for the individualistic nature of Korean society, especially the value it places on money. Having grown up in a society that espoused the values of collectivism and egalitarianism, North Koreans tend to live alone wanting to experience their own independence.

The collectivist nature of North Korean society and its indoctrination tends to lead to North Koreans to be more communal and group oriented in their view of how to handle problems and their thinking can be rigid. This leads defectors to perceive the world in black and white and a communal manner, in contrast to the individualist nature of South Korean society. At the same time, the egalitarian ideals that are propagated in the North can leave them with a sense of unfairness in regards to how their situation is handled in South Korea.

Despite the challenges defectors have faced integrating into South Korean society, a note of caution is needed about examining the experience of North Koreans who have defected to South Korea and extrapolating their experience to how all North Koreans would react to unification. The defectors by definition are a self-selecting group and may not be representative of the North Korean population as a whole.

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 Doug’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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