BERLIN AND THE BICKERING KOREAS (2004): A Tale of Two Walls

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BERLIN AND THE BICKERING KOREAS (2004): A Tale of Two Walls

Journalists are rarely given the gift of prophesy. And like some Alice in Wonderland character they are always running twice as fast just to keep up with current events. The luxury of second-guessing the future generally falls on columnists.

Contemporary journalism largely consists of two motivations which might be given the same adjective: reflective.

News journalism is reflective of the present but can also reflect on past events, as happened this week when the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall made news.

It was an opportunity for us all, courtesy of prompting by journalists, to reflect on that historic event and what has happened since to the two previously separate Germanys.

It isn’t all good news. Freedom comes at a price and for many former East Germans they are still paying it: there is unemployment which runs at an astonishing 60 per cent of those left in the old state -- but most have fled anyway, looking for the bright future that democracy and capitalism promised. Many have yet to find it, and some even speak of how much better things were in the old days. It would be wrong to overstate that sentiment however. Few want a return to a dictatorial communism, they simply long for the certainties of yesteryear.

There was also an extraordinary figure I caught on National Radio. I think this is right, that only 19 per cent of marriages in Germany involve partners from the former east and west. The Berlin Wall has been replaced by a bedroom wall.

Of all the statistics batted around about bankrupt cities in the east and job creation schemes which disguise economic issues that is perhaps the most telling. But then again, what did we expect?

This was not just a country divided but a people divided: separated by history, culture, social mores, expectation, education, consumer goods … To expect that once the blocks and barbed wire were removed that everything would be hunky-dory and there would be much holding of hands is na├»ve.

While we might reflect on the current problems of Germany it is also possible to be speculative, to indulge in the folly of prophecy, and turn attention to a country where a similar scenario will be played out some time sooner or later.

Right now the likelihood is later, but that is only going to make the problems of a united Korea even more manifest.

The divide between North and South Korea is much more pronounced than that of the old Germanys.

PJ O’Rourke once quipped that East Germans didn’t want democracy, they didn’t even know what it was. What they wanted was jeans and rock’n’roll. There is more truth in that than many would like to admit. In East Germany a generation grew up at least having some notion about what was going on in the west. Books and records were smuggled in, underground groups passed the gossip, there was some interaction with the outside world, even if it was just a radio picking up a western station or discreetly talking to a tourist.

North Korea -- the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- is a whole other scenario. Under the regimes of the two Kims (“the Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and now his son Kim Jong-Il aka “the Dear Leader”) the place has been steadily sinking into poverty and famines, all to the accompaniment of military parades and sabre rattling.

The vast majority of the population of 25 million (half that of the south) are rural and poor, and know nothing of life outside this crucible of cryogenically frozen Stalinism.

The few people I have spoken with who have been to the north -- and the country only allows very few tourists, and always with guides -- have said that because of their cultural isolation even the language of the north is now quite separate from that of the capitalistic, American-influenced south. The pronunciations of words are distinct, and the vocabularies are increasingly becoming quite different. I guess in the north you don’t need to have a word for “blog” if you have never seen a computer, let alone used one.

North Korea is an anachronism in the modern world and, despite the volatile nature of its political relationship with the south, China and the USA -- and its isolationism -- it relies on the west for aid, and technical assistance in controlling the meltdown of its Soviet-era nuclear plants. There are a few small signs of a rapprochement across the border which is patrolled by thousands of troops on each side of the No-Man’s Land between. Some business is going on and a few in the south can see massive opportunities for trade if there is a thaw in the very frosty political relations.

But most in the south see the north as a real problem and they are very fearful of the future. I have been to South Korea three times and the people I have spoken to across the country were just plain terrified of any sudden failure of the state in the north. There would be a flood of impoverished northerners in their streets within days (you can be at the border by car in 20 minutes from the southern capital Seoul) and they would be people who had no comprehension of capitalism, corporate culture, democratic principles or anything else the wealthy south takes for granted.

These wouldn’t be people who wanted jeans and rock’n’roll, they have no idea what those things are. Hell, these people don't have petrol so the streets are deserted. Many probably haven't even been inside a motor vehicle.

In the meantime it is also impossible to do much trade with the north because it is so poor. It can’t afford to buy anything, has nothing to sell and the place is falling apart. Literally in some places.

So while politicians and social historians are pecking over the changes in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall their findings won’t necessarily be much use when, and it is not an “if”, the two Koreas are put on the collision path of re-unification.

Someone might want to start thinking about that, and the new American president -- who dumped North Korea in the “axis of evil” then has largely ignored it -- might be one of them. The rhetoric might need to be toned down and genuine dialogue begin, however distasteful it might be to the ideologues of both sides.

We have sent millions in aid to North Korea and three years ago our ambassador to the south was also accredited in P’yongyang, the capital of the north. We have had political delegations go there.

There’s no money in this for us of course, but the idea is to steadily erode the political and social isolation of a country which clings to an ideology that has been discredited everywhere else and is corrupt to the core.

Significant numbers of Koreans (from the south, obviously) live, work and are educated in this country. They are our neighbours and friends. Their concerns about the future of their country are very real.

If history is, as one historian said, just one damn thing after another then we might want to consider the lessons of the Berlin Wall. And not let events on the Korean peninsula -- the “land of morning calm” as it used to be known -- become just another damnable thing in history.

This essay was written for www.publicaddress.net on the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 2004

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