SEOUL -- If Germany can, why can't Korea?
Last week, as the world commemorated the 45th anniversary of the end of World War II, Koreans watched with fascination and not a little envy as East and West Germany continued moving toward economic and political union. But Korea, the other country that was split in two by the superpowers at the end of the war, has remained a divided nation. It is, in a sense, the last bastion of the Cold War.
While East and West are busy in Europe building friendships and cutting military budgets, the border between the two Koreas is still a world of barbed wire, bunkers and bazookas. The optimistically named "Reunification Highway," winding through lush, green rice paddies and vegetable fields north of here toward the border, is dotted every few miles with tank traps -- squat, concrete tunnels loaded with explosives to block North Korean tanks in case of an invasion.
Observance of the Allied victory in World War II, and of the accompanying Korean liberation from Japanese rule, was supposed to be a time of new exchanges between North and South. In a succession of proposals to open the sealed border between the two nations, Seoul and Pyongyang each scrambled to make an offer that would prove politically impossible for its rival to agree to.
Here in Seoul, people routinely say it may be years, even decades, before Korea starts to do what Germany has done. Diplomats, scholars, politicians and folks on the street here have offered several explanations why reunification has proven harder for Korea.
For starters, there is the Korean War, which grew out of the Allies' decision to carve a Korea that had been united since the Seventh Century -- although often dominated by China or Japan -- into a pair of superpower surrogates. North Korea's Soviet-installed Communist government invaded the U.S.-backed republic in the South, and from 1950 to 1953 Koreans killed each other by the tens of thousands.
"There are emotional scars and mutual distrust that have not gone away," said Kim An Hi, a diplomat in the South Korean Foreign Ministry. "The Germans have not had that experience of fighting a civil war within this lifetime."
The Soviet Union, China and the United States were all involved in that war, and there seems to be some resentment against those powers because of it. But much of the killing was done by Korean soldiers fighting their erstwhile countrymen.
As a result, the two Koreas tend to view each other as alien forces -- even though there are millions of families divided between North and South. "We are one race, but we have had 40 years or more of hostility," said Yang Yun Kil, of the South Korean government's information service. "So, in some ways, we act as if we were two countries."
Germany too was split by the Soviets and the West and was a locus of Soviet-U.S. tension for decades. But with the Cold War just about over, superpower tensions are less often played out there than in Korea.
East-West rapprochement has led Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to begin talking to the South Koreans, and it appears that the Soviets are less willing these days to pay for costly North Korean defenses. But the Chinese, North Korea's northern neighbors whose influence on the region has no parallel in Germany, have backed the Pyongyang regime for more than 40 years and may still hold to a militant anti-South stance. That would offset somewhat any Soviet pressure on the North Koreans to cut a deal with the South.
And whereas the many Cold War dichotomies -- East vs. West, communism vs. capitalism, totalitarianism vs. pluralism -- that separated the Germanys evaporated when East Germany's Communist regime was toppled, similar differences between the Koreas remain. Reinforcing those differences is the singular position of Kim Il Sung, the North Korean dictator known to his countrymen as "the Great Leader." Hand-picked by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Kim has ruled with apparently unquestioned authority as long as North Korea has been a nation.
"It is hard to say that anything serious will happen to change things as long as Kim Il Sung is alive," said Prof. Han Sung Joo, a political scientist at Korea University who has met with delegates from North Korea at academic gatherings in the United States. Noting that about 20 percent of the country enjoys the favored status of Communist Party membership, Han says Kim has created "a large, built-in bloc of support to maintain the status quo."
Kim Il Sung, 78, remains, if the speeches released in his name are authentic, an adamant foe of the South and its capitalist economy. His 48-year-old son and designated successor, Kim Jong Il -- called "the Dear Leader" -- appears equally bellicose in his writings. But analysts in the South say he might be less rigid than his father if he attained a firm hold on the government.
Some analysts here suggest that the Korean people may not be quite as committed to the idea of reunification as the Germans.
"Is there really a deep yearning among the Korean people for unification?" asked Han, the political scientist. "When I ask my students if they really want to unify Korea, if that should be the driving policy goal, they're not entirely certain about it."
If Korean unification does come, Han and others argued, it may not mirror Germany's complete economic and political union. "It's not quite accurate to say the only choices are the present situation and complete unification," Han said.
Kim Dae Jung, leader of South Korea's second-strongest political party and a former political prisoner because of his opposition to South Korean dictators Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, is supporting the idea of a "Korean Confederation," preserving the two Koreas but allowing personal and commercial interchange that is not permitted now.
"It would be a movement toward one Korea, but it would accept the reality that there are two governments now, and neither one wants to give up any power," Kim Dae Jung said last week.
The two countries have tentatively agreed to talks beginning next month between their prime ministers. The talks -- if they take place -- might produce some agreement that would let families who were divided when the separate nations were created exchange mail and phone calls. Such exchanges are taboo now. And when Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze visits North Korea next month, it is believed that he will push Kim Il Sung to make some moves toward rapprochement with the South.