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The Peninsula

Insights from German Unification: Unification will Come Before Integration to Korea

Published September 29, 2015
Category: Inter-Korean

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

By Troy Stangarone

In her speech in Dresden in 2014, South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted that “Germany and Korea have a special relationship through the painful experience of division,” and that “Germany is an example and a model for a peaceful reunification of our own country.” As Germans prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of reunification on October 3, there now exists a quarter century’s worth of data to indicate what that model might mean for the years after unification on the Korean peninsula. Looking at Germany today, one key takeaway from its experience is that unification will come quickly, but the integration of the two economies and societies will be a multi-generational process.

Despite what has largely been a successful process of unification in Germany divisions still remain. The Gross Domestic Product of the former Eastern Germany is still only 75 percent of the former West Germany states as of 1995 and the economic convergence between the two largely stalled two decades ago. Unemployment in the former Eastern states is above 9 percent in contrast to the 5.6 percent in the West, while workers in the East have lower levels of productivity and work longer hours.

While the economy in the East still lags that of the West, some cities such as Leipzig and Dresden are booming and the regional differences are now no greater than those in the United States or other OECD countries. However, growth in the East has been held back by the movement of young workers to the West and the failure of firms to establish research centers or relocate their headquarters to the East. After the Second World War, many firms moved their headquarters to the West and logistics and research facilities have tended to stay in the West after unification. Coupled with a failure to promote entrepreneurship, the East has lacked some of the key ingredients needed to boost its economic performance despite transfers of 2 trillion euros.

On a social level, divisions still remain that have slowed the process of bringing the two societies together. In a survey marking the anniversary of unification, 73 percent of Germans believe that unification has been a success with 76 percent of West Germans seeing it as a success and 66 percent of East Germans agreeing. At the same time, 67 percent of Germans, 64 percent in the West and 77 percent in the East, see the process as unfinished. Perhaps more positively, only 47 percent of Germans, including 49 percent of West Germans, see unification as having been too expensive.

However, East and West Germans still maintain differences. While three-quarters of West Germans are comfortable with the current political system, only half of easterners feel “at home” with the federal republic. Perhaps more concerning 28 percent of Easterners have no faith in democracy at all. Rightwing populist parties such as the Alterative for Germany and protest movements such as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, or PEGIDA, tend to be more successful in the East as a result.

East and West Germans even differ in ways that touch on everyday life as well. Three quarters of West Germans belong to a religious community, while the opposite is the case in the East. East Germans tend to use different words for basic items like plastic and stapler. They also tend to be more likely to use daycare and less likely to own guns than their West German counterparts. While West Germans prefer luxury cars like BMWs, East Germans prefer Skodas.

However, some divisions begin to fade with the younger generations. Among those born in 1989 and 1990, or Generation 25, unification is seen as a success by slightly larger portion than the population as a whole. They are also less likely to see unification as unfinished, only 42 percent as opposed to 67 percent of the general population, and only 30 percent believe it cost too much as compared to 47 percent of the population as a whole.

However, while the overwhelming majority of Generation 25 see unification as a good thing, 46 percent still believe that there is a difference in the way that easterners and westerners think. They are also less likely to see the former East German system as unjust as the general population.

What does this mean for Korean unification? The German experience suggests that unification in a formal sense will come quickly, but the process of integrating the societies and two economies will be a multi-generational effort.  As might be expected due to the significant economic differences prior to unification, economic challenges will likely remain a quarter century after unification. The social differences and differing views on the political system are also important insights into the potential difficulties that may lie ahead for integrating North Koreans into South Korean society. However, as new generations are born and the memory of the former North Korean state begins to fade some of the divisions will begin to disappear. Though that fading memory could also lead younger generations to view North Korea in a less negative light than other generations.

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

Photo from Merlijn Hoek’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


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