Editions : April-June 2017

JOURNAL | GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES 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.

Entry points for unification diplomacy

There were both long-term and short-term entry points for German unification diplomacy. Looked at from a long-term perspective, unification had been the key strategic goal of West German foreign policy since the creation of the federal republic. West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, argued that the rebuilding of German democracy, economic revival and the full integration of Germany into the European and Atlantic cooperative structures would finally produce unification. Western integration was seen as the sine qua non for achieving this goal.

Yet, with the division of Europe deepening in the 1950s and 1960s, unification became more aspirational than real. A complementary approach was necessary that focused more on the acceptance of the status quo, accompanied by rapprochement and engagement to lower East-West tensions. This became strongly expressed in Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik beginning in 1969 and was sustained by the succeeding chancellorships of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. As Karl Kaiser, a former adviser to German governments and now a professor at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, has rightly observed, “[t]o preserve the essence of a common nation, West German policy inevitably had to deal with an East German state.” The explicit acceptance of the status quo was considered necessary and inevitable in order to change it.

The short-term entry points of German unification diplomacy were at least threefold. First, the constellation of leadership at the highest levels was remarkable. In 1989-90, the cast of leaders in key countries had unusual long-term experience, and had previously cooperated and developed personal relationships, which clearly facilitated what would become “the most intensive phase of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in European history.” Second, both Moscow and Washington expressed a clear and unequivocal commitment to peaceful change. This was particularly important since East German security forces had made preparations to use armed force to suppress mass demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden. Yet, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stressed from the beginning that the East German Politburo’s refusal to engage in controlled reform had become an increasing problem for Moscow. Despite initial discussions about a military intervention in East Germany, he was ultimately unwilling to support any action that could have led to a repeat of the Tiananmen incident. Third, the diplomacy of German unification was driven by a range of tipping points, actual and potential, which defined the pace and the dynamics of the process.

In sum, the long-term and short-term entry points of German unification diplomacy produced a number of strategic opportunities that created new momentum for the redesign of the Cold War European order. Yet these strategic opportunities were accompanied by a clear tactical sense about the institutional process that translated strategies into diplomatic outcomes. Equally important was the agreement on a strategic narrative (“One Europe whole and free”) to generate the necessary “buy-in” from the wider international community. In this context, the two-plus-four process, commencing with the first ministerial meeting in Bonn in May 1990, constituted the strategic hub and “pivot” that allocated roles and responsibilities to bilateral and multilateral forums to discuss the political, economic and military ramifications of German unification. The entry point was the jointly developed agreement by the two German states on the external aspects of unification, which was then communicated to and negotiated with the Four Powers. As a result, German unification was not the result of a major peace conference but of the Treaty on the Final Settlement, signed by the six parties on Sept. 12, 1990, in Moscow.

Looked at from the perspective of strategic diplomacy, the German case highlights three interconnected entry points – two long term and one short term – that are relevant for the Korean peninsula. First, the fundamental importance of functioning bilateral relations between the divided countries. Inter-Korean relations have been a – and sometimes are the – critical issue in the Northeast Asian regional order. Hence, unification diplomacy itself is an important entry point to the complex Northeast Asian security system. South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea from 1998 to 2007 in many respects resembled the core tenets of West Germany’s late 1960s Ostpolitik. South Korea’s Nordpolitik constituted a long-term entry point based on the idea of peaceful coexistence and normalization of inter-Korean relations. The Sunshine Policy aimed at shaping the system to facilitate Korean unification diplomacy. The three principles underlying the Sunshine Policy – a) no armed provocation by North Korea will be tolerated; b) South Korea will not attempt to absorb the North in any way; and, c) South Korea will actively engage in cooperation – effectively accept the status quo in order to achieve long-term change. In sum, Trustpolitik is the sine qua non of the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification. A long-term solid engagement approach needs to complement any short-term coercive policies such as sanctions, military confrontations or suspending joint high-profile projects such as the Kaesong industrial complex.

The second long-term entry point is the effective management by the great powers – the United States and China – of issues related to the Korean peninsula. Historically, the United States has been supportive of unification. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton backed peaceful unification based upon “terms acceptable to the Korean people.” In 2009, President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama announced the Joint Vision for the Alliance, in which both presidents expressed their commitment to peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, in 2013, President Park Geun-hye and Obama announced that they would foster “peaceful unification based on the principles of denuclearization, democracy and a free market economy.”

Notwithstanding such declarations, it is not certain whether US operational policy would support Korean unification as it did in the German case. According to a Council on Foreign Relations report, US priorities toward the Korean peninsula are: 1) prevent horizontal proliferation; 2) stop vertical proliferation; 3) denuclearize; 4) plan for contingencies; 5) promote engagement; and 6) improve the situation for the North Korean people. That is, American priorities lie in denuclearizing North Korea. If these objectives are met, then there is no clear rationale for the United States to support unification. While German unification increased US influence in Europe, this would be less certain in Northeast Asia, given the rise of China. Also, due to the current solid relationship between South Korea and China, there is a US concern that a unified Korea could be pro-Chinese rather than pro-American. As a consequence, the United States may find the status quo on the Korean peninsula preferable to unification.

China officially supports “peaceful, independent, incremental and denuclearized unification.” It supports “peaceful” unification because it would be favorable to Chinese economic development, “independent” because a unified Korea should not lean to the United States, “incremental” because unification should not hamper regional stability, and “denuclearized” because a unified Korea should abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons and not depend on the US nuclear umbrella. At the same time, China opposes any unification scenario that would result in expanded US influence on the Korean peninsula. The possible deployment of US troops north of the 38th parallel is of particular concern since China would lose a critical buffer, posing a risk to Chinese national security. Hence, the continuing division of the Korean peninsula may best serve Chinese interests unless assured otherwise. As North Korea’s largest provider of food, energy and consumer goods, China is a key stakeholder in unification diplomacy and needs to be fully engaged. Reassuring China and reducing uncertainties ought to feature prominently in any diplomatic strategy.

The third (short-term) entry point is unification diplomacy as an exercise in crisis management, mainly triggered by North Korean contingencies, for example a coup d’état, revolution, large-scale defections, an outflow of weapons of mass destruction, hostage situations involving South Korean citizens or major natural disasters. The joint US-South Korean military operation plan for dealing with “sudden change” in North Korea (OPLAN 5029) covers these imagined tipping points. It specifies the rapid deployment of US and South Korean forces into North Korean territory to secure military and nuclear installations and provide humanitarian assistance. During the Cold War and early post-Cold War period, South Korea had plans in place to absorb North Korea if necessary. But this is no longer a realistic scenario, because it leaves China out of the equation. In fact, China has argued that maintaining stability and achieving unification should be separate issues.

Furthermore, North Korean contingencies would almost certainly trigger a military response by China. The People’s Liberation Army would attempt to secure weapons of mass destruction and build refugee camps in the border area between China and North Korea. Also, at least on paper, there is still a bilateral treaty between China and North Korea that guarantees China’s automatic intervention if North Korea is involved in a military conflict. Even though North Korea may not call for Chinese assistance, China could use the bilateral treaty to justify its intervention. There is also the possibility of China installing a pro-Chinese regime in post-contingency North Korea.

The tipping points of unification diplomacy

Tipping points are a series of small changes or events that are significant enough to cause larger changes in the system. Successful strategic diplomacy depends on the capability to nudge, nurture or delay – if not prevent – tipping points in order to achieve long-term policy ends. While German unification does not provide a template that can easily be applied to the Korean peninsula, the case is nevertheless instructive as a reference point. This section highlights key tipping points in German unification diplomacy and concludes with potential lessons for the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification.

The change in the domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev constituted the single most important tipping point for German unification diplomacy, and ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful change of the European security order. Yet, this process was far from being predetermined and inevitable. Soviet perestroika and glasnost at home and abroad in effect accelerated the course of history and created both historic opportunities and challenges. Gorbachev, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, triggered the momentum by proclaiming “freedom of choice” for Central and Eastern European countries. This explicit renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine effectively ended the monopoly of communist parties in the Eastern bloc. Yet, there were secondary tipping points that had to be either avoided or prevented (such as the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union) or nurtured and nudged (such as the holding of free elections in Central and Eastern Europe). The acceleration of history forced international diplomacy into a prolonged crisis and overdrive mode that could have easily resulted in disaster without the acute awareness of key policy makers that there were tipping points and thresholds not to be crossed. While there was broad agreement that peaceful change would be the desired outcome, a European security order with a unified Germany constituted only one among other possible futures.

The first free election in Poland, in 1989, produced a government that was led by Solidarnosz activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Moscow’s decision to accept the election results paved the way for other countries in the former Soviet bloc to challenge communism. Those tipping points between late 1988 and the summer of 1989 led to cascading effects that needed to be handled with extreme care. For example, in October 1988, during German Chancellor Kohl’s visit to Moscow, Gorbachev stressed that the solution to the German problem would remain on the timetable of long-term history; by June 1989, Moscow and Bonn would issue a joint declaration that highlighted “the unqualified recognition of the integrity and security of every state and its right to choose freely its own political and social system as well as unqualified adherence to the norms and principles of international law, especially respect for the right of peoples to self-determination.” Within a few months, the long-term perspective had turned into a short-term strategic opportunity. The joint declaration opened the possibility of German self-determination through free elections, which were eventually held in March 1990. In essence, unification was a real possibility if the German people would choose it; the bottom-up and top-down processes toward German unification would need to align.

Unification diplomacy in 1989-90 was embedded in the central European institutions – especially NATO and the European Economic Community – created in the late 1940s. The framework was designed to accommodate the enhanced material power of a united Germany without upsetting the European security system. Alternative proposals such as German neutrality or double membership in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact did not get enough traction. Embedding unification within the framework of European security institutions was also a reflection of Germany’s long record of self-constraint to the extent that it had become oblivious to power. Without this pre-existing institutional framework and accumulated trust, it would have been extremely difficult for its Western neighbors to support German unification. As far as Germany’s NATO membership is concerned, even Gorbachev (and the small circle of advisers around him) finally seemed to accept the logic that a united Germany outside the Atlantic Alliance could carry with it the potential for an independent and renationalized security policy, with the possibility of subsequent nuclear armament. This does not mean that the wider military and political elite in the Soviet Union endorsed this policy, but they were too weak to decisively influence policies at that stage.

While the previous subsections highlighted key tipping points of the European security system that were actively promoted by the key stakeholders to achieve peaceful change, other tipping points were carefully prevented, or at least suspended, until unification was achieved. There were serious concerns about nuclear anarchy in the Soviet Union and violent conflict in East Germany, respectively, in the case of an uncontrolled breakdown of government and law and order. As Kaiser highlighted, quoting a White House source, “Every morning a silent prayer was said in the White House to keep Gorbachev alive and in power.” Furthermore, Kohl provided substantial loans to Gorbachev, some of them interest-free, to stabilize the rapidly deteriorating Soviet economy.

The East German economic collapse, accelerated by the mass exodus of skilled labor to West Germany, could have derailed the unification process. Yet, rather than stabilizing the economy through loans, the Kohl government used the downward momentum to mobilize the people of East Germany to vote in favor of unification in the March 1990 general elections; given the dire state of the East German economy, it was effectively a vote in favor of the Deutsche mark.

In drawing potential lessons for the Korean peninsula, three points seem to be in order. First, North Korean contingencies could easily create tipping points that escalate into a direct Sino-US military confrontation on the Korean peninsula, if the risks of misperception and miscalculation are not carefully managed. Consultation and coordination are therefore crucial for effective crisis management. Second, to successfully navigate potential tipping points, South Korea needs to have effective strategic levers in place with the United States, China and North Korea.

Those strategic levers need to be embedded in institutional frameworks that can serve as a strategic hub and pivot to translate strategies into diplomatic processes. This could be achieved by a) firmly embedding the long-term policy goal of Korean unification into the roles and objectives of the US-South Korea alliance; b) the creation of a flexible diplomatic consultation mechanism between the United States, South Korea and North Korea; and, c) intensified consultations with China about the fundamentals of unification. And third, any peaceful unification must begin with the shared identity and culture of the people aspiring to be united. North Korean people are attracted by the South Korean system, which they may ultimately want to join, through a process of general elections, for a better life. This aspiration can and needs to be nudged and nurtured, as Ostpolitik did in the German case.

The endpoints of unification diplomacy

The endpoints of German unification diplomacy were largely defined between December 1989 and March 1990 when the German chancellery and foreign office developed a strategy that sought to define the endpoints, both domestic and external, of unification. At the domestic level, there was strong agreement that East Germany join the federal republic under Article 23 of the Basic Law rather than negotiating a new constitution. This was later approved by a freely elected East German Parliament.

As for the external dimensions of unification, these questions defined the process:

  • How could concerns about the power of a united Germany be addressed?
  • How could unification be achieved with Germany’s continuing membership in European and trans-Atlantic institutions, notably the European Community and NATO?
  • How could there be an international settlement resolving the open questions left from World War II, while avoiding a peace conference with all of Germany’s wartime adversaries?

It was clear from the very beginning that these questions could only be dealt with at various multilateral and bilateral levels simultaneously. The unification of the Korean peninsula requires a similar multilevel approach. Yet, the strongest focus of the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification needs to be on the domestic audiences. While the engagement of key stakeholders such as China and the United States will shape the conditions of the Northeast Asian security system, the ultimate endpoint of strategic diplomacy is the political integration of North and South Korea. This is a tall agenda. German unification was achieved by integrating two countries politically. Economic cooperation and exchange facilitated by Ostpolitik created an environment that let the East German people aspire to the West German system and lifestyle. The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, commencing in September 1989, brought together dissatisfied East German citizens demanding unification with West Germany. The weekly marches turned into a mass movement that galvanized the political process leading to unification in 1990. “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”) was the most famous chant, reminding East German leaders that a democratic republic needs to be ruled by the people and not by an undemocratic party. It also constituted a very powerful strategic narrative that framed the diplomatic process of unification. In the general election of March 1990, 93 percent of East German citizens cast their vote. Forty-eight percent supported the conservative Alliance for Germany, which had promised freedom and prosperity based on the West German model.

Unification without a minimum degree of sociocultural connectedness of the people is bound to remain fragile, as the case of Yemen demonstrates. Yemeni unification in May 1990 was achieved through arbitration by the Arab League of Nations. However, the process did not mobilize enough domestic support to create a sustainable integrated political system. Despite the ratification of the Yemeni Constitution in 1991, which committed the country to a multiparty system, free elections, respect for human rights, the right to own private property and equality under the law, and the holding of parliamentary elections in 1993, the country remained divided and in deep political crisis. Most significant, the military forces of North and South Yemen remained separated. The outbreak of civil war in 1994 was a result of the unfinished process of political integration that lacked buy-in from the political elites, the military and Yemeni citizens.


Comparing notes on German and Korean unification does not suggest that there are cookie-cutter approaches available to easily replicate the success of one unification process in another and very different operational environment. Yet, two points follow from our brief comparative analysis.

First, if Germany’s Ostpolitik provides any advice, there is no option besides engagement if you want to reach the people of North Korea and improve their lives. At the same time, Seoul may want to draw some lessons from its Sunshine Policy, which was primarily based on large-scale economic projects. While the basic principles of the Sunshine Policy still hold, there is a case to be made to change the design and execution of the Sunshine Policy. As it stands, Pyongyang is in a very comfortable position to slow down or freeze projects at will, which makes Seoul vulnerable to North Korean pressure. A comparison with the Chinese engagement strategy is instructive here, because it is driven by market-based and local-level interactions and has generated a degree of “local liberalism.”

And second, there is a clear need to think about consultation mechanisms other than the framework of the six-party talks to give South Korea more effective strategic levers for engagement with the United States, China and North Korea. Forming a US-South Korea-North Korea consultation mechanism would be a step in the right direction, along with intensified consultations with China about the fundamentals of unification.


Jochen Prantl is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy and an associate professor of international relations at Australian National University.

Hyun-Wook Kim is an associate professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.


This essay first appeared in Global Asia, a journal of the East Asia Foundation, with which Strategic Review has a content-sharing agreement.


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