East and West Berliners mingle and dance in front of a control station.
Jockel Finck / AP

What Would It Take to Unify Korea? Germany Offers Lessons.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is still much to do. That bodes poorly for any potential Korean reunification.

BERLIN—No one was really in charge the night of November 9, 1989. Thousands of Berliners had converged along the walls slicing through the center of the city, crowds with their own life force, lifting people through unmanned border checkpoints, to be greeted by cheers and street parties on the other side.

“Nobody had really expected it,” Walter Momper, the mayor of West Berlin at the time, recalls to me. “And so there was no plan.”

Over the next few days and weeks, Momper would, as he describes it, “do what was necessary”—link the public transport system across East and West Berlin, connect telephone lines, even hand out city maps. Police officers from the west drove over to liaise with their counterparts in the east. Momper and other city administrators had some idea of what to do, but they mostly adapted to problems as they arose. In a country that relishes organization, German reunification started with no rules and no road map.

Speak to German officials from that time, and they will offer many lessons learned—but their wisdom has worth mostly for one place: the world’s last remaining Cold War divide, the Korean peninsula.

Comparisons do not need to be perfect to be instructive. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I find myself thinking about what it would take to build a unified Korea. I live in Berlin, just a few hundred feet from where the wall once stood, and have also reported from both North and South Korea. The synthesis of Seoul’s pop-art city lights and Pyongyang’s brutalist grayness feels like an impossibility to me. And, as it turns out, it is as frightfully formidable an idea to those I spoke with for this article.

Every expert and official I contacted believes that German-style reunification—essentially an absorption of North Korea on South Korea’s terms—is the only possible scenario to consider, and that’s only if events play out fairly peacefully. Seoul has flown German bureaucrats from that era over to pick their brains for insight. And if Germany is any indication, the process would take far longer, and cost far more, than anyone might imagine.

Even now, the work of German reunification remains unfinished. The government still publishes an annual report on the “status of German unity.” Workers in Germany—including me—continue to pay a “solidarity tax” of 5.5 percent of income tax paid, that goes to the east.* In total, experts estimate reunification has cost the country more than $2 trillion.

Koreans would have to shoulder a greater burden. In Germany in the early 1990s, people in the west made two to three times as much as their eastern counterparts. In 2017, South Korea’s per capita GDP was $29,743. That same year, North Korea’s was $1,214—a 25-to-1 differential. It would take generations for North Koreans to catch up and enjoy the same prosperity as South Koreans. One estimate has Korean reunification costing $10 trillion, or almost seven times South Korea’s annual GDP.

“South Korea is deathly afraid of German-style unification,” says Andrei Lankov, the director of Korea Risk Group, a research firm. “We have never seen the unification of two countries so different in terms of their economic power.”

Germany once again provides some data points: Current salaries in what was East Germany are 84 percent of those in the west, and the region’s economy as a whole lags behind. From 1990 to 2016, its population shrank by 11.2 percent—a crippling outward migration that North Korea would likely experience as well. Not one company of the 30 listed on Germany’s main stock index has headquarters in the east. The elites of united Germany—those in politics, business, and academia—still mostly come from the former west. Unsurprisingly, then, 57 percent of eastern residents say they still feel like second-class citizens. The east’s struggles have contributed to the popularity there of the far-right Alternative for Germany political party.

South Korea’s chaebols—family-owned conglomerates such as Hyundai, LG, and Samsung—are already among the world’s most powerful companies. It is difficult to imagine a situation where they would not have as much influence in the north as they currently do in the south, where they would not sweep in, post-reunification, to snap up assets and build factories, taking advantage of a new underclass of cheap labor. Enlightened governance unbeholden to lobbying would be needed to prevent exploitation, both of people and of property, the latter of which is owned in totality by the North Korean state. That process will require patience. In Germany, privatization continues to this day.

But more than even economic imbalance, what really worries those who study reunification is the potential health catastrophe. Not only do nearly all of North Korea’s 25 million people lack basic health care, but huge numbers are flat-out sick—with tuberculosis, hepatitis B, parasitic worms, and more. Additionally, an entire generation born during the famine in the 1990s literally has addled brains—reduced cognitive abilities.

“Are you going to take a third of your doctors in South Korea and send them up north?” asks Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation who has carried out analysis on a potential Korean reunification. “Those are things you want to think about, but I am not aware of any such planning.”

Then there is the inevitable security challenge: One of the more remarkable things about German reunification was that while the dissolution of East Germany’s military was fraught, with most of the roughly 175,000 soldiers of the National People’s Army leaving the force entirely, it happened largely without incident. Soldiers who chose to remain in the armed forces swapped their uniforms and joined the German Bundeswehr. The Koreas present a much more complicated problem. The Soviet Union stationed nuclear weapons in East Germany, but the country never possessed any of its own. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has an estimated 20 to 30 nuclear warheads and a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons housed in more than 10,000 underground facilities and labyrinths across the country. The demilitarization and denuclearization of North Korea, which has a standing army of 1.2 million, would not just consume a unified Korean government, but also demand international help (notably that of China, which functions as North Korea’s international protector).

South Koreans look out over the North Korea-South Korea border.
Visitors watch the North Korean side at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. (Ahn Young-joon / AP)

Bennett does not believe the North Korean military would disband as willingly as East Germany’s did, especially if a unified Korea seeks retributive justice, given Pyongyang’s human-rights abuses. “They’re going to go into the black market; they’re going to go into criminal activities. They’ve got the training; they’ve got the weapons,” Bennett says, pointing to the already corrupt military elite. “That is just a nightmare waiting to happen.” While Combined Forces Command, the joint U.S.–South Korea military structure, has classified plans to handle the north’s armed forces, dealing with this entire class of people will require enormous effort.

Still, South Korea appears in some facets better prepared than West Germany, at least theoretically. It has a Ministry of Unification, albeit one that focuses more on running current North Korea policy than on future reunification mitigation. When asked for detailed plans, the ministry answered in general terms, referring me to President Moon Jae-in’s desire for peace and reconciliation. It was more forthcoming on the German comparison, noting that “there is a limit to directly applying German reunification to the Korean peninsula” while simultaneously acknowledging that the government had published 30 volumes studying just that. A building in northern Seoul also houses the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces, akin to a shadow government ready to step in, but both Bennett and Lankov paint an absurd picture of a pencil-pushing bureaucracy not at all ready for the scale of its task. “The plans were paper-thin deep,” Bennett says.

Beyond the tangible tasks of addressing economic and health-care gaps, or dealing with a huge number of unemployed soldiers, are the mental and emotional challenges. Some 33,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, and if this group serves as a litmus test for integration, the prospects look bleak. These defectors face discrimination from South Koreans: North Koreans, with their distinct accents and smaller physical size, stick out. Most struggle to find jobs, and many end up living below the poverty line, overwhelmed by their new membership in one of the most modern, hyper-capitalist societies in Asia.

“The first difficulty for them,” says Thae Yong-ho, once North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of its highest-level defectors, referring to his compatriots, “is they don’t know how to choose.”

Thae recounts how even he, once among North Korea’s elite, still struggles with the array of choices inherent in even quotidian tasks in South Korea, from what to order off a restaurant menu to which bank to deposit his money in. “In North Korea, there is no opportunity to choose,” he says. “Everything is top-down. If you go to university, you are asked to study this subject or that. For jobs, they are assigned by the government. So North Korean people are not used to this kind of choosing culture.”

I am reminded of what Momper told me he did in Berlin: With so many things to deal with in those first 24 hours, he nevertheless arranged special bus lanes and shuttles to ferry hundreds of thousands of East Berliners to ooh and aah at KaDeWe, West Berlin’s iconic department store and a temple of consumerism. It was a trip that a young, then-anonymous Angela Merkel also made.

At the time, East Germans expected that “they’d all have a Mercedes or a BMW and be happily prosperous,” says Hope Harrison, the author of After the Berlin Wall. The array of choices had not yet been overtaken by the reality of what was to come, and the accompanying surprise and disappointment that would ensue. Even then, “choosing culture” for East Germans was not the Herculean psychological task it would be for North Koreans. Enough Easterners remembered a world before communism, and some even knew democracy from the Weimar period. North Koreans would need to learn not only how to choose what to buy, but also how to choose whom to lead them. Soberingly, many cannot entirely shed authoritarianism—defectors in the south have expressed dislike for democracy.

With so many factors, planning seems like the only way to mitigate disaster. One person I spoke to questioned the utility of preparedness, though: Momper, West Berlin’s last mayor. No amount of it, he believes, can anticipate what will actually happen.

“I don’t think it’s necessary or even good to makes plans for unification,” he says. “Because what I know about it is this: that it all comes differently from the way we plan it. Even the small parts of unification we had in the process—they were all for nothing.”

* This article originally misstated the amount of solidarity tax paid by German workers. The solidarity tax amounts to 5.5 percent of income tax paid, not 5.5 percent of total income.