Lessons from German Reunification for Inter-Korean Relations: An Analysis of South Korean Public Spheres, 1990-2010

By Shin, Jin-Wook | Asian Perspective, January-March 2014 | Go to article overview

Lessons from German Reunification for Inter-Korean Relations: An Analysis of South Korean Public Spheres, 1990-2010


Shin, Jin-Wook, Asian Perspective


THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL AND THE REUNIFICATION OF WEST AND East Germany were national and world-historical watersheds signaling the end of the Cold War. German reunification was especially meaningful to all Koreans, as they still live with the recurring confrontations caused by the mutually antagonistic relations between North and South. Since the 1990s, West Germany's (Neue) Ostpolitik and the experience of national reunification of Germany have provided a crucial reference point for South Korea's policies, ranging from Nordpolitik in the early 1990s to the Sunshine Policy of the early 2000s.

However, the meaning of German reunification for Korea has been in no sense self-evident. German reunification did not provide an obvious lesson that could be simply followed, adopted, and applied. What actually followed were different readings of that experience, which were both embedded in and integrated into the context of domestic debates about inter-Korean relations. Although numerous studies have drawn lessons from the German reunification, few have focused on the discursive fields within which conflicting versions of lesson-drawing activities interacted, with implications for the domestic political dynamics in South Korea.

In this study I seek to contribute to the understanding of the political implications of interpretive contestations in the policylearning process. I analyze the competing discourses in South Korean public spheres about the lessons of German reunification for inter-Korean relations and the ways these discourses were mobilized for intervention into the South Korean government's policies relating to North Korea and reunification. Korean intellectuals, journalists, and policymakers in public spheres have interpreted German reunification quite differently. I employ discourse analysis of editorials, columns, and other contributions on the opinion pages of two major newspapers, Chosun Daily and Hankyoreh, which respectively represent the most influential conservative and progressive print media in South Korea.

North Korea Policy in South Korea and the "German Case"

West German foreign policy and the reunification of Germany have influenced South Korean governmental policy toward North Korea in various ways, although the impact on the overall political dynamics in and around the Korean peninsula should not be overstated. In forming their North Korea policy, South Korean governments since the 1970s have tried in different ways to appropriate the West German Ostpolitik and the experience of German reunification in the Korean context. In the history of South Korean diplomacy, two policy lines have been remarkably salient: the Nordpolitik and the Sunshine Policy.

By way of analogy with the West German Ostpolitik, the term Nordpolitik was first used to characterize the Park Chung-hee government's (1961-1979) June 23, 1973, Declaration for Peace and Reunification (June 23 Declaration). The term was first used officially in a 1983 lecture by Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok, who spoke on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the June 23 Declaration (Lee 1989; Jeong 1990). Likewise, the basis of the Roh Tae-woo administration's Nordpolitik (1988-1993) came from the Ostpolitik. These two Nordpolitiks represented different variations of Ostpolitik-Park's as an attempt at rapprochement with the communist bloc for the purpose of isolating North Korea, and Roh's as, at least partially, an application of the idea of "change by approach" (Wandel durch Annäherung) toward North Korea (Kim Y. C. 2011, 81-83).1

The Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003) represented a more serious attempt to apply the German Neue Ostpolitik in the Korean context. The Sunshine Policy, however, was not a mere variation of the German precedent. Theoretical and strategic models other than the German one-such as the liberal approaches that stressed mutual interests and functional interdependence, or the US engagement policy in the post-Cold War era-also influenced the North Korea policy of the Kim Daejung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations (2003-2008) (Koo 2005; Kim K. …

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