The only thing missing to make it a real Berlin night out was Berlin.
The celebrations marked the beginning of a days-long series of events in Itaewon, a trendy neighborhood in Seoul and about 5,000 miles away from Berlin’s main festivities.
While Germans mainly view the anniversary Saturday as a celebration of history taking a lucky turn, some South Koreans hope one day to see their own equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They would like the events of 1989 to serve as a model in Korea, which remains divided between the totalitarian North led by Kim Jong Un and the democratic, modern South.
“I think there is no other nation which can really appreciate what the Koreans would be feeling at these times of confrontation and division of the nation,” said German Ambassador Stephan Auer, who attended the Seoul event this week.
“From the bottom of our heart, we really hope that in a not too distant future, Koreans will be able to celebrate reunification and freedom,” he said.
Lessons from the past
Throughout the years, the fall of the Berlin Wall has served as a case study, inspiration or cautionary tale for politicians around the world, depending on their motives.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has been credited with making the United States an undisputed superpower and giving hope to opponents of oppressive regimes around the world. Some have also seen darker shadows of what unfolded in 1989. To an increasingly authoritarian leadership in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union appears to remain a warning about the risks of gradually losing control.
But nowhere has the quest to draw lessons from the events of 1989 been so persistent and so relevant as in South Korea.
Over the years, mentions of German reunification have rarely fallen below 500 stories a year in national newspapers, according to an upcoming analysis by Eun-Jeung Lee, the head of the Korean studies department at the Free University of Berlin.
After interest peaked in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of East Germany, it spiked again about 10 years later and has recently surged even more significantly, as South Koreans have once again begun to look for lessons from the German past.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who patrolled the inner-German border as a young soldier — voiced hopes earlier this year that the separation of South Korea and North Korea may one day end.
“I am hopeful that the world gets a day like that here as well, where no one expects that North Korea will take this action,” Pompeo said in an interview days before heading to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, for nuclear negotiations with North Korea in late February.
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to reach a deal at the time, as Kim refused to take action toward denuclearization without obtaining relief from economic sanctions. Since the nuclear negotiations broke down in Hanoi, North Korea’s relations with the United States and neighboring South Korea have deteriorated.
Hoping to persuade North Korea to resume talks, Seoul later reached out to Pyongyang with offers of food aid and a call for joint efforts to fight African swine fever. Pyongyang was not interested.
At the Berlin Wall festivities in Seoul this week, Auer, the German ambassador, said he finds the current state of inter-Korean relations “unfortunate,” but added that South Korea should “never give up” its outreach to the North. Auer said it was important to maintain the “sense of unity among the people,” referring to then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s early-1970s New Eastern Policy that aimed to normalize ties between East and West Germany.
At the same time, Auer cautioned that “there were some major fundamental differences” between communist East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and North Korea today.
“East Germany at that time didn’t attack West Germany; we didn’t wage a war between brothers,” said Auer.
The ambassador’s cautionary words were echoed by experts in Germany.
A selective memory
“Drawing parallels was never possible,” said Lee, the Berlin-based professor. Some of the attempts to draw lessons for South Korea from the German example — despite vastly different historical trajectories — have been so selective, and thus misleading, that they can have “dire ramifications,” Lee said.
The list of differences is long. Whereas Germany was separated for 41 years, Korea has now been divided for more than 70. North Korea has since turned into a more totalitarian state than East Germany ever was — with more control over its citizens, officials and the economy. And while many East Germans could exchange letters with West German citizens or meet them at holiday destinations in Eastern Europe, no such opportunities exist for ordinary North Koreans today.
Despite this, consecutive South Korean governments have attempted to draw lessons from Germany. Their focus has shifted over time. For years, the debate was dominated by questions about the potential costs of German reunification, with most estimates ranging between $1.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion.
In Germany, the gigantic bill had to be covered by West German taxpayers, but it has rarely been used to frame reunification in a negative light. For some in South Korea, meanwhile, the cost has served as a cautionary tale.
A 2018 survey of over 3,800 South Koreans found 77 percent prioritize their country’s economy over unification with the North when given a choice between the two.
Especially among younger South Koreans, a perception that the costs of Korean reunification would be too much to bear "has been damaging,” Lee said. She said not enough attention has been paid to a sentiment in Germany that the benefit of living in a unified democracy was worth the effort.
More recently, however, South Koreans’ focus has turned to new and different challenges that Korean reunification could pose, as continuous divisions between East and West Germany have manifested themselves more clearly in recent years.
In the immediate aftermath of reunification, eastern Germany’s economy partially collapsed, as many companies were inefficient and unable to keep up with their new West German competitors. The impact can still be measured in GDP and wages, which continue to be lower in eastern Germany.
In the following three decades, eastern Germans’ concerns have at times been neglected by decision-makers in western Germany. This has triggered “feelings of disadvantage” and experiences of “humiliation, denigration and downgrading," according to an extensive research project last year. Populism has flourished as a result.
In South Korea, the rise of far-right populism in the former East Germany has led many to believe that “when a country is so divided, perhaps it’s better to live without reunification,” Lee said.
Despite challenges, the vast majority of Germans disagree with that conclusion. In polls, only about 15 percent said the disadvantages outweigh the benefits.
East and West may still be different in some ways, but they also have a lot in common. The currywurst that was served in Seoul this week, for instance.
Soon after it was invented in capitalist West Berlin, it also gained popularity in the communist East.
Rick Noack reported from Berlin.