The fall of the Berlin Wall once gave South Korea hope. Not anymore

Berlin Plaza
A section of the Berlin Wall is displayed at “Berlin Plaza” in central Seoul, gifted to South Korea in 2005 as a “symbol of hope” for Korean unification.
(Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)

Office workers, delivery boys and teenagers in school uniforms hurried through the rain, past the battered concrete slab without giving it a second glance.

Hana Lee strode up, stared at it pensively, then snapped a photograph.

The panel —12 feet wide, about as tall and 15 inches thick — is a piece of the Berlin Wall. It has been on display in downtown Seoul since 2005, when Germany gave it to South Korea as a “symbol of hope for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula.”

Lee, a 37-year-old South Korean opera singer, was visiting from Germany, where she has lived the last 14 years.


Pieces of the wall are also exhibited in Germany, but Lee wanted to see it here, 30 miles from the proverbial final Cold War frontier between North and South Korea — a heavily guarded barrier no closer to crumbling than it was when the one in Berlin fell in 1989.

Lee thought of her maternal grandfather, who fled south during the Korean War and died never having been able to return home.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “It’s been 30 years for Germany, but still so distant for us.”

Perhaps no other country has poured as many resources into studying Germany’s unification as South Korea. Its bureaucrats, academics and politicians have parsed the German example from every possible angle — including the economic cost, the integration of legal and pension systems and the pitfalls of sorting out social welfare and bridging cultural gaps.

At the onset of the Cold War, both Germany and Korea were divided up by Allied powers, with the Soviet Union taking control of what became East Germany and North Korea.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the predominant emotion in South Korea was envy, soon followed by hope.


Kim Nuri, a professor of German literature at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University, was studying in Germany at the time. He recounted how he could easily pick out the Koreans among the Asian students at his university the next morning because they were all teary-eyed.

“In some ways, South Koreans are more interested in German unification than Germans themselves are,” he said last month at a forum in Seoul about the fall of the Berlin Wall — one of myriad events marking the 30th anniversary.

Today, that hope has faded, with many Koreans wondering whether the German example is even relevant or a single Korea attainable.

“There’s just less interest in unification,” said Yang Chang-seok, a former government official who was dispatched as a unification attache to Germany in the mid-1990s. “There are a lot more differences than parallels between the German case and the case of the Korean peninsula.”

Over the years, contract workers for South Korea’s Unification Ministry have photocopied reams of documents at the German Federal Archives and shipped home tens of thousands of pages of speeches, internal memos and research studies about the aftermath of reunification.

Based on those documents, the ministry recently completed a six-year project publishing 30 volumes — each one about 2,000 pages — of research, analysis and source material.

The lessons drawn have been a sobering reality check on what Koreans could expect from their own unification.

Visitors gather Oct. 28, 2014, at a mural showing former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, left, kissing former East German communist leader Erich Honecker at the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that today is a tourist attraction.
Visitors gather Oct. 28, 2014, at a mural showing former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, left, kissing former East German communist leader Erich Honecker at the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that today is a tourist attraction.
(Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

“It made us realize there would be aftereffects and problems, that it will cost us, and that psychological integration will be very difficult,” said Yang, who is now a professor at the Korea University of Technology and Education.

For all the differences between East and West Germany, the economic, cultural and political divides between the two Koreas are far greater.

In 1990, per-capita GDP was about 1.5 times higher in West Germany than in the East, whereas the average South Korean today makes at least 25 times as much as the average North Korean.

East Germans could get television signals from West German broadcasts before the Berlin Wall fell, but North Koreans are criminally prosecuted for consuming South Korean content, which is available only on illicit thumb drives smuggled in from China.

East German political parties were largely absorbed into West German ones within about six months, even if the process left East Germans feeling like second-class citizens without sufficient representation, South Korean researchers wrote in one of their volumes on reunification.

“In our case, the culture and system of party-based politics is lacking compared with West Germany, and considering North Korea has no experience with democracy, it begs the question how a democratic system can be developed,” they wrote.

Then there’s the long shadow of the Korean War, in which millions of civilians were killed between 1950 and 1953 — a brutal history that has no parallel in the German division and left a legacy of distrust and skepticism between the Koreas.

More than anything, South Koreans today worry about how much unification with North Korea would cost their already flagging economy.

West Germany paid about 2 trillion euros — about $2.2 trillion today — to fund infrastructure improvements, social welfare benefits and other measures to integrate East Germany.

“It may not be an exaggeration to say there’s been more discussion about the cost of German unification in South Korea than in Germany,” the researchers wrote.

In a 2018 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification, only 1 in 4 South Koreans said they would be in favor of a tax increase to cover the cost.

“Ultimately, the core issue with the cost of unification is not about the numbers, but a political problem” of convincing South Koreans it is worthwhile, the researchers wrote.

Many German officials are puzzled by the obsession with cost, the researchers said: “They say even if they had a clairvoyant in 1989/1990 who predicted unification will cost 10 times as much as forecast, they would still have gone through with it.”

North Korea, for its part, bristles at any mention of the German model by South Korean officials, alleging that such references reveal an intent to subsume North Korea rather than negotiate reunification as equal partners.

There are few other precedents for reunification. Saying the German example had limitations because it was rapid and abrupt, the South Korean government recently put out a call for researchers to work on a study looking at the European Union as a blueprint.

Joo Seong-ha, a North Korean escapee who became a journalist for the South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo, traveled to Germany in the summer to meet with various German officials who were involved with the unification process.

His takeaway: “It’s too different. The German case is no longer relevant for the Korean peninsula.”

He wrote in one column that the driving force behind German unification had been the will of the East German people, but that the North Korean government’s oppression of its people was of a different magnitude.

“The Stasi [East German security agency] surveilled, but they didn’t execute,” he wrote. “To a North Korean’s eyes, East Germany was heaven.”

He wrote that he instead found himself thinking that the 1990 reunification of Yemen may be a more pertinent case study. There, social chasms soon led to civil war.

Lee, the South Korean opera singer living in Germany, said she hoped Korea would learn from the German example and follow it.

Her friend Paik Kyoung-won, 36, who teaches music in Seoul, said she had no idea the Berlin Wall was standing in Seoul, despite having lived within walking distance of it the last five years. She said that Germany’s unification had once given her hope, but that she had become more realistic over the years.

“I’m not so sure anymore what happened in Germany will be possible in Korea,” she said. “We’re different. We’re going to have to figure out our own way.”