Germany's lessons for Korea
April-June 2017
By: Jochen Prantl and Hyun-Wook Kim

Germany’s unification in 1990 is often referred to as a textbook case for the Korean peninsula. In this essay, we compare notes on German and Korean unification by looking at entry, tipping and endpoints of strategic diplomacy. We argue that political integration needs to drive the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification. German unification was not preordained, but was the product of strategic choices made at critical junctures of the process. While long-term developments post-1945 created an international environment that facilitated the acceptance of German unification by the key stakeholders, in the Korean case, the United States, China, South Korea and North Korea pursue very different strategic goals and interests.

To substantiate the argument, this essay is in five sections: section 1 investigates key features of the complex European and Northeast Asian security systems; section 2 examines entry points of German and Korean unification diplomacy; section 3 highlights the tipping points (potential and actual) of unification; section 4 briefly looks at the endpoints of German and Korean unification diplomacy; and section 5 offers some potential lessons for the Korean peninsula.

The system at play in Europe and Northeast Asia

The Cold War system in Europe was designed to address the problem of German power, an issue that was paramount for regional and global stability. Western Europe’s post-1945 security system tied the German Gulliver to a web of institutional arrangements – the Western European Union, the European Economic Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – designed to tame German power. Closely intertwined was a whole cluster of questions related to the US role in Europe – for example, the American military presence, the relationship with major European allies, especially in the nuclear area, and the rationale for NATO. In a nutshell, this post-1945 security system was extremely complex, with regional security closely interconnected with global order, and vice versa. Yet, the vision and grand design was conducive to the achievement of unification more than four decades later. The terms and conditions of the end of the Cold War in Europe were deeply influenced by the long-term vision and aspirations of the early postwar leaders.

In contemporary Northeast Asia, by contrast, the problem of unequal power remains unresolved. There is no overarching, accepted institutional framework, underwritten by a social compact between major and smaller countries, which would tame and legitimize unequal power, most prominently between China and the United States, but also between Japan and China. The management of unequal power trumps institutional design; any institutional form must follow the function of a grand bargain on the rules of the regional game. Yet, this set of bargains has yet to be struck. As a result, in Northeast Asia, institutional complexity and pluralism are defining features of the regional order, and there are multiple potential access points and avenues for collective action. Especially after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the US-led hub-and-spoke system of alliances to contain the Soviet Union and China has been transformed into a web of complex relationships, often coexisting, sometimes competing. Despite this pluralism, the United States is still the key player in the Northeast Asian security system, which defines the diplomatic dynamics on the Korean peninsula.

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