Despite differences between Korea and Germany, German unification provides valuable lessons for Korean unification. Maintaining a dialogue channel between the two Koreas is critical for keeping peace and promoting reconciliation. It is also imperative that South Korean humanitarian work resume in the North. With humanitarian projects, South Korean NGOs can increase contact with ordinary North Korean people. “Change through contact” is a crucial method of demonstrating love for those in North Korea, promoting relationship-building and trust that may facilitate in creating a foundation for rebuilding North Korea and ultimately reuniting the Korean people.

Germany was unified peacefully in October 1990, nearly forty years after its division. The process for unification began with a mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany, as well as a civil revolution called the Monday demonstrations, which took place in major cities of East Germany, including Leipzig and Dresden. Church leaders played a key role in the process of revolution and democratization in East Germany. From the early 1980s, a prayer meeting was held every Monday at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig and continued through 1989.

German unification gave Koreans a renewed hope for their peaceful unification. Twenty-seven years after East and West Germany unified, however, Koreans have lost much of such hope and see more differences than similarities between Germany and Korea, particularly when comparing East Germany and North Korea. First, unlike Germany, Korea experienced a fratricidal war, leaving deep enmity between North and South Koreans. Second, while East Germans could watch West German television and had access to outside information, North Koreans have been blocked from outside media and information for decades. Third, while there existed civic dissenting groups, including churches in East Germany, there are no such organizations in North Korea.

Despite these and other differences, there are still several valuable lessons for South Korea to learn from German unification. This article examines these lessons, including modes of engagement, key alliances, dialogue, and self-determination, concluding with the key role played by the church. Finally, I offer suggestions regarding what South Korea should do to advance peaceful unification.[1]

Lessons of German Unification

Looking back at the achievement of the reuniting of East and West Germany, we can discern at least five significant lessons, some of which I believe have special relevance for North and South Korea.

1. West Germany continued an engagement policy toward East Germany. Starting in 1969, then West German chancellor Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) initiated a policy of seeking “change through contact” (Wandel durch Annäherung) with East Germany. Egon Bahr, Brandt’s spokesman and later his minister at the chancellor’s office, stated, “Unification is not a single action but a process with many steps and stops.”[2] In particular, he stressed that isolating or containing East Germany would not bring about the collapse of the regime, but would rather increase the suffering of the people, deepening the chasm of division. Therefore, West Germany continued a policy aimed at encouraging East Germany to allow for the maximum level of contact between the two countries, while improving the living conditions of East Germans.

The West German government stressed that the German question remained unresolved, but it was not able to pursue unification publically, since the four victorious powers (US, USSR, Great Britain, and France) retained a controlling position over Berlin and all of Germany, including the question of German unification. Therefore, in its policy for East Germany, West German governments, both conservative and liberal, aimed to improve the living conditions of the East Germans. Based on the Basic Treaty of 1972, West Germany continued to engage with East Germany through exchanges and cooperation. Exchanges of people and materials, as well as cooperation in various areas between the two Germanys, resulted in growing dependence of the East on the West and thus increasing leverage of the West against the East.

It was meaningful that in 1982 a new conservative governing coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) under the leadership of Helmut Kohl inherited the so-called Ostpolitik from the previous SPD government. The new government accommodated a policy that had already been approved by the vast majority of the West German population.[3] The West Germans’ support for Ostpolitik was growing, since the détente policy toward East Germany was threatened by surrounding international tensions over the deployment of intermediate nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. They did not want to see any chance of war emerging in their German homeland. Chancellor Kohl made the bold decision to bail out the East German regime when it was in financial trouble. In 1983–84 he approved a massive loan amounting to DM 1.95 billion from West German banks to East Germany in return for the latter’s promise to ease travel restrictions and improve human rights conditions. This trade-off opened the gate wide for East Germans to visit West Germany, which only increased their hope for freedom and a better life in the West.

Since the late 1990s South Korea has sought similar engagement activities with North Korea, most notably under the so-called Sunshine Policy of the liberal governments led by Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun between 1998 and 2007. This policy emulated the West German policy of seeking “change through contact,” through initiatives such as the Mount Kumgang (Diamond Mountain) tour program and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which brought together South Korean manufacturing companies with North Korean laborers. These initiatives contributed to increased contact between the North and South Korean people and helped to ease tensions along the border. However, the return to conservative government in 2008 brought criticism of the engagement policy on the grounds that it propped up the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea, which, along with North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear weapons program, resulted in the Sunshine Policy being all but shut down. In the current climate, where North Korea continues to defy international pressure to end nuclear weapons development, the South is under pressure to maintain a hard line of nonengagement with the North.

2. West Germany’s strong alliance with the Western bloc, led by the United States, helped build trust and gain support for unification. West Germany strengthened its ties with NATO members by agreeing to the Double-Track Decision (Doppel Beschluss) of December 1979. The NATO members decided to pursue two-track policies; they would continue negotiations with the Soviet Union for banning nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles from Europe. However, it was agreed that, should those negotiations fail, the US would deploy its Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe. Assuming office as chancellor, Helmut Kohl placed priority on implementing NATO’s decision, and deployment of the Pershing II missiles began in 1983. Kohl recalled, “Without the deployment, US-German relations would have been hurt badly, probably putting the NATO alliance at risk.”[4]

When the East German regime was about to collapse and the reunification of Germany looked possible in 1989, West Germany alleviated the concerns of Western allies—particularly former foes like England and France—with assurances that German unification would be pursued only within the framework of European integration. Chancellor Kohl’s commitment to a united Germany remaining in NATO helped gain the strong support of US president Bush for German unification. Kohl and Bush closely and frequently discussed the issues pertaining to German unification; without President Bush’s support, Chancellor Kohl could not have succeeded in achieving it.

In South Korea some people support a policy of seeking a balance between the US and China, while others argue that the alliance with the US should remain firm until unification. South Korea does not need the consent of neighboring powers for unification, as was the case for Germany, but their support is nonetheless important. South Korea should therefore continue to improve relations and strengthen its cooperation with China and Russia. However, its solid alliance with the US and its relationship with Japan are more important for unification, since the two allies will be more supportive.

3. Intra-German dialogue produced many bilateral agreements to increase contacts and cooperation in political, economic, cultural, and social fields. Dialogue channels between the two Germanys helped avoid misunderstanding and encourage mutual consultation during the critical period of 1989–90. In August 1989 Chancellor Kohl exchanged letters with Erich Honecker, general secretary of the East German Communist party. Ministerial-level discussions over the massive exodus of East Germans and a summit meeting in Dresden in December 1989 demonstrated the ability of the two Germanys to resolve crises and exercise self-determination.

When the situation became more precarious with the mass exodus from East Germany in the summer of 1989, senior officials from the two Germanys met frequently in Berlin and at the United Nations in New York to discuss how to handle tens of thousands of East German defectors staying at West German embassies in nearby countries. During this upheaval period (Wende), the two sides held minister- or vice minister–level joint committee or expert meetings in twenty-two areas, including transportation, legal cooperation, and the economy. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and Prime Minister Hans Modrow took office in December 1989, such high-level talks continued.

Chancellor Kohl visited Dresden, where a Monday demonstration was taking place,[5] and had summit talks with East German prime minister Modrow on December 19–20, 1989. They agreed to form Vertragsgemeinschaft, a confederative structure under two states and two governments. By having inter-German meetings at various levels, the two Germanys could send the message to the international community, including especially the four victorious powers, that they were in full control of the situation in East Germany and could pursue unification in a peaceful and democratic manner through dialogue.

When a South Korean unification minister asked Lothar de Maiziere, the last prime minister of East Germany, for advice regarding Korean unification, the latter said that South Korea should continue dialogue with North Korea. He referred to an old German saying, which, translated, says that “even sworn enemies would not shoot each other while they are talking.” Dialogue is a very useful means of understanding each other, helping to avoid miscalculation in times of heightened tension. Dialogue also paves the way for promoting exchanges, cooperation, and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

4. It was the East German people who overthrew the Communist dictatorship and chose to reunite with West Germany. One of the major reasons why the four victorious powers could not intervene to a large extent in the process of German unification, despite their responsibility and rights over the country,[6] was that they were compelled to respect the self-determination of the German people. In his interview with the Washington Post on September 18, 1989, US president Bush stated that unification should be decided by the Germans themselves. Gorbachev, secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party, also said the Soviet Union had no reason to object to self-determination by the Germans if they wanted unification.

While stressing the importance of German self-determination for unification and freedom stipulated in the Basic Law, Kohl was careful to show respect for the self-determination of the East Germans as well.[7] He was patient enough to wait for them to form a new democratic government through free, democratic elections. In the first general election in March 1990, about 48 percent of East German voters supported the union of parties, which promised an early unification with West Germany. On August 23, 1990, the East German Parliament (Volkskammer), formed by election, passed a resolution that the five East German states would enter “the effective area of the Basic Law” (Beitritt zum Geltungsbereich des Grundgesetzes) of the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990. The East Germans themselves thus played a key role in this process of democratic and peaceful unification.

Why did East German voters decide on unification with West Germany? During the Monday demonstrations, they called for early monetary union by shouting, “If the DM [Deutsch Mark] comes, we will stay here—if not, we will go to you!” They wanted to live as well as their West German brothers and sisters. Ms. Gunda Roestel, former head of the Green Party after unification, who was born and brought up in East Germany, recalled in a seminar held in Seoul in March 2015 that “she could smell freedom through cosmetics, chocolates, and coffee sent by her West German relatives.”

Unlike the two Koreas, for many years prior to unification, there were active exchanges and cooperation between the two Germanys. Citizens could send mail and gifts by post, and visits were possible. More than 80 percent of the people in the East watched West German television. Essentially, during the night, Germany had already been united. East Germans came to know about the better quality of life in the West and began to question their destiny under socialism, putting less and less confidence in their own regime. When a window of opportunity opened to the East Germans, they decided to “shift their loyalties, expectation, and political activities” to the West.[8]

Likewise, it is imperative that South Korea endeavor to mitigate the North Korean people’s animosity toward the South. It should expand contact and cooperation with them, since it is they who must decide on unification in the future. In particular, South Korea should provide humanitarian assistance for the North whenever possible, including medical and food aid, ensuring that it reaches those in need and that it is received with an awareness of its origin. Closer relationships with North Korea built through humanitarian work will be conducive for a unification process.

5. West German churches helped East German churches to survive and gradually gain room for political activities under Communist rule. Churches in East Germany protected dissidents throughout the Communist era and, in 1989–90, played a key role in peaceful demonstrations and democratization. East German churches pursued openness toward the world, expanding their role in addressing social and public problems of human rights, peace, and the environment. They cooperated with the Communist regime as much as they could but also served as a safeguard for alternative groups. These groups “transformed the church’s democratic impulses into an opposition politics.”[9]

Why did the East German regime allow its churches to work as they did? According to Manfred Stolpe, who served as executive director and later president of the Union of Evangelical Churches in East Germany, which engaged in humanitarian projects with West German churches, including reunion of separated families and Freikauf (West German payment in kind for the release of East German political prisoners); the Communist regime not only needed hard currency from West Germany through East German churches but used churches as a safety valve for people’s discontent.[10] In addition, the East German government wanted to improve its international image by claiming to the world that it offered its people religious freedom.

After relations between the two Germanys were normalized in the early 1970s, exchanges and cooperation between churches grew markedly. West German churches provided materials requested by East German churches. The items even included petroleum, copper, and coffee beans, probably requested by the Communist regime for earning or saving hard currency. From the early 1980s, when tensions arose between the East and West over the deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe, churches from the two Germanys met and organized prayers for peace (Friedensgebet) in Leipzig to voice protest. For this effort church leaders designed posters (based on Isa. 2:4, “They will beat their swords into plowshares . . .), and chose gospel songs and read chapters of the Bible. The number of the participants in the prayer meetings grew, and in 1989 they played a key role in staging peaceful demonstrations. East German church leaders organized new political groups or parties and participated in a leading post-Communist governing body called the Roundtable.

German unification showed that West Germany’s engagement policy, code-named “change through contact,” brought changes to the lives and mind-set of the East German people. The policy also gradually made the East German government more dependent on the West. The East German people’s vote for early unification with the West led political dynamics to advance unification. As a result, even though it was their legal right to decide on unification, the four powers had no choice but to accept self-determination by the Germans as a fait accompli. The two Germanys maintained dialogue channels, which promoted their relationship even during the chilly East-West relations of the early 1980s and helped manage the crisis in East Germany in 1989.

In the Korean case, South Korean church leaders visited North Korea in 1992 and talked with Kim Il-sung and leaders of the North Korean Christian Association for the first time after division. Although there is no freedom of religion in North Korea, state-sanctioned and highly controlled Christian churches exist in Pyongyang. The North Korean government built two churches in Pyongyang in late 1980s in an effort to convince the outside world that it allowed religious freedom for its people, even though its citizens may not attend these churches freely. Despite such limitations to church-church cooperation, South Korean churches have long engaged in providing humanitarian assistance for North Koreans, including food and construction of hospitals and houses. They also have financially supported the renovation of churches in Pyongyang. However, because of the insistence of the North Korean regime on absolute control over external contacts, the ability of foreign churches to expand their engagement inside the country is strictly monitored. They are thus extremely limited in their ability to expand their reach in the way that West German churches were able to in the period before unification.

What should the Koreas do for unification?

The nature of the inter-Korean division places a number of significant limitations to the prospects for overcoming the division, unlike the precedent set by the German experience. Of the five lessons mentioned above, however, two should be taken seriously by South Korea at this time; continuing dialogue and winning the hearts of North Koreans. Every South Korean government over the course of the division has made efforts at dialogue with the North Korean government, but it has not been easy, and talks have often reached a stalemate. North Korea has tended to use dialogue to extract assistance or political gains from South Korea, often setting preconditions for resuming dialogue with the South. They have sometimes proposed talks after raising tensions or creating a crisis through military provocations, with the intention of gaining all they have demanded without compromise. Many times inter-Korean dialogue has broken down when North Korea unilaterally ended the meetings. For these reasons, skeptics have gained the upper hand over proponents of dialogue, arguing against “talk for talk’s sake.”

Nevertheless, for several reasons, South Korea should work toward reopening dialogue channels, whether public or secret, particularly at this juncture, when tensions are very high. First, dialogue is a very useful means of reducing the propensity for misunderstanding and miscalculation. When relations remain tense and hostile, conflict is more likely.

Second, without any dialogue between the North and South Korean authorities, nongovernmental engagement with North Korea is unlikely to take place. After the new ROK government took office in May 2017, several South Korean NGOs applied for visits to North Korea, but their North Korean contacts replied that conditions were not ripe yet for such visits. In other words, inter-Korean governmental relations have yet to be improved, despite the return to a progressive government, which is traditionally more conciliatory toward the North Korean regime. In order to expand contacts between the two peoples as happened in Germany, official inter-Korean dialogue should be resumed to agree on exchanges and cooperation.

Third, North and South Korea can prevent neighboring powers from intervening in the process of unification in ways that complicate or frustrate the process. If there is no channel for dialogue between the two Koreas, in case of any contingency taking place—for example an uprising in the North Korean capital—neighboring countries might intervene. South Korea can claim the principle of self-determination, but unless it has direct talks with North Korea, it cannot persuasively claim to lead the way in specific steps toward unification. The German experience seems especially relevant to this point.

Finally, how can South Koreans win the hearts of North Koreans for unification? Continuing to provide humanitarian assistance is a vital step toward achieving this goal. Humanitarian projects are a useful means of engaging the North Korean people, thus promoting reconciliation and trust with them. At the same time, North Korea still needs outside assistance to improve its people’s living conditions, something on which its young leader places as much priority as nuclear development, according to his policy of Byungjin (parallel development). Prior to the natural disasters and famine of the mid-to-late 1990s, the North Korean regime had not opened its doors to the outside world. Yet since that time, it has overcome some of its aversion to outside assistance. Many South Korean NGOs have visited various regions of North Korea to help those in need via emergency aid of food and medicine, while other NGOs have engaged in development aid for building houses, hospitals, and greenhouses. It is important that such work continue and expand where possible, and it is here that South Korean churches should be especially active; they certainly have the capacity and the experience to be able to do so.

From a long-term perspective, humanitarian assistance can motivate the North Korean people to develop a sense of community with South Koreans. In terms of self-determination, North Korean citizens have the right to decide their future. There would be nothing better than having North Korean citizens decide to be unified with South Korea when given a chance to vote for unification. The North Korean regime has spared no effort to infuse hostility into their people’s hearts against South Korea and the United States. By providing humanitarian aid and related contacts, however, South Koreans can promote an essential foundation of trust.


Despite differences between Korea and Germany, the German experience still holds relevance for Korean unification. A consistent policy toward North Korea is of great importance. So far, however, the ideologically divided political culture in South Korea has failed to produce a sustainable, bipartisan North Korea policy. Regional geopolitical dynamics continue to hold sway, which means that the likelihood of unification ever taking place is slim. While South Korea’s strong alliance with the US will help muster international support for future unification, rivalry or conflict between Washington and Beijing over Northeast Asian issues may threaten such a process.

In December 1991 the two Koreas signed the historic Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation, and they formed three inter-Korean committees to implement the agreement. During a summit meeting in October 2007, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and chairman of the National Defense Committee Kim Jong-il agreed on the Declaration for Development of North-South Korean Relations, and Peace and Prosperity. The declaration specified exchanges and cooperation in military, economic, social, and cultural areas. According to Roh administration officials, inter-Korean relations would develop into the phase of a confederation if those exchanges and cooperation were implemented. Inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation throughout the 2000s brought changes in North and South Koreans’ attitudes toward each other. “Change through contact,” a key concept for West German engagement with East Germans, can and should be applied to the Korean quest for unification.

Currently, much of the previous contact that was taking place through cooperative initiatives between North and South Koreans has been suspended. For the sake of inter-Korean unification, it is imperative that South Korean humanitarian work resume in the North. Since the rise to power of the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, his people have come to depend more on private markets than on public distribution for their daily necessities. Some argue that humanitarian aid pushes markets into the sidelines. Observers largely agree, however, that private market expansion now is such an essential part of North Korea as to be indispensable to survival of the regime. Under these new circumstances, there is space for South Korean NGOs to start new humanitarian projects to increase contacts with people and perhaps exert a measure of influence over North Korean domestic policy, as has previously been the case in minor instances such as policy for people with disabilities. “Change through contact” is a crucial method of demonstrating love for those in North Korea, promoting relationship-building and trust that may facilitate in creating a foundation for rebuilding North Korea and ultimately reuniting the Korean people.

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe him,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? . . .

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations. (Isa. 58:7, 12a NIV)


  1. This article draws in part from my article “Review on the Previous ROK Government Policies for Unification and Future Policy Options in View of German Unification,” in Inter-Korean Relations and the Unification Process in Regional and Global Contexts, ed. Jong-Chul Park and Joseph Harte (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification, 2015), 51–104.
  2. Egon Bahr, “Wandel durch Annäherung” (speech, Tutzing Christian Academy, July 15, 1963), http://web.ev-akademie-tutzing.de/cms/index.php?id=53.
  3. Ostpolitik was supported by 55 percent of the people, with only 25 percent opposed (A. James McAdams, Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993], 152–55).
  4. Helmut Kohl, Ich wollte Deutschlands Einheit, trans. Kim Joo Il (Seoul: Haenaem, 1998), 26–27.
  5. Beginning in 1981, prayers for peace were held every Monday at St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig. After the prayer meeting, participants walked out of the church to demonstrate their views on human rights, the environment, and peace. In May 1989 the demonstration on Monday grew bigger in size in protest of rigged local elections and continued through October.
  6. The treaty on the relations between West Germany and the three powers of May 26, 1952, stipulated that the three powers hold rights and responsibilities for all of Germany and Berlin, including German reunification and any peace treaty.
  7. For instance, at his remarks at a dinner for Gorbachev, who was visiting Bonn in June 1989, Kohl stressed the political will of his government to complete German unification and freedom based on self-determination without outside interference (Kohl, Ich wollte Deutschlands Einheit, 48).
  8. Earnst Haas defined political integration as a “process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations, and political activities toward a new center, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over the preexisting national states” (quoted in James E. Dougherty and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., Contending Theories of International Cooperation and Integration: A Comprehensive Survey, 5th ed. [New York: Harper & Row, 1990], 510).
  9. John P. Burgess, The East German Church and the End of Communism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 68.
  10. Information shared in a meeting with the author in Potsdam on October 14, 2014.

This is the author-accepted manuscript. The fully-published article can be found here.

Chang-Seok Yang, Lessons of German Unification for Korea. International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 106-115. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Chang-Seok Yang, a South Korean, teaches on Korean unification at Ajou University, Suwon, and at Korea University of Technical Education, Cheonan, South Korea.