A European View of the Korean Peninsula

Dr. Hans-Ulrich Seidt in Seoul on Apr. 16, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)
Dr. Hans-Ulrich Seidt in Seoul on Apr. 16, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)

SEOUL, April 16, 2010 - Germany's Ambassador to Seoul, His Excellency Dr. Hans-Ulrich Seidt, cited his own country's experience with reunification in prescribing what South Korea should do to prepare for unification with the North. Speaking at the the monthly luncheon lecture to Asia Society Korea Center members, Seidt cautioned against overconfidence when planning for reunification, and also recommended looking at China's reunification with Hong Kong as another potential model.

Seidt began by describing his own background. Before coming to Korea, he was ambassador to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008, after serving in German embassies in Moscow and Brazil. Although he began his address by stating that this was his first posting in East Asia and "you will learn nothing from me," the Ambassador demonstrated a solid grasp of the issues affecting the Korean Peninsula and its place in the wider world.

Upon arriving in Korea, Seidt spent three months in Gwangju, Jeollanam-do, where he immersed himself in experiencing and learning about Korea. He had expected to find a land still in thrall to time-honored Confucian traditions, so Korea's rapid modernization caught him by surprise. "There are very few countries have made a very recent encounter with modernity," he pointed out. "I can think of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Korea." He sees now that Korea is not a society in isolation on its peninsula; it is no longer a "hermit kingdom."

In Seidt's view, Korea has moved into the 21st century with great determination. As to reasons why, His Excellency offered three reasons. First, with two large and powerful neighbors (China and Japan), Korea will always be number three in the area; being a global player places the country in a better situation than when it just plays in its own region. Secondly, Korea has no natural resources of its own. It must therefore export in order to be able to import, which makes a global outlook a necessity. Finally, culturally and linguistically, the Korean language is a very difficult one for outsiders to learn, His Excellency said. Therefore, Koreans make a point of being able to communicate with the world, often in English—the international medium of communication.

Turning to Korean institutions of higher learning, Seidt mentioned how impressed he was with the manner in which universities here are organized. He believes that the SKY universities (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities) are following the benchmarks of Ivy League schools in the United States, while the next tier of schools follows the example of good US state universities. Meanwhile 5,000 Korean students study in Germany each year, especially engineering, nano-technology and machine-building. Through this, Germans are finding partners with whom they can work in the 21st century.

Asking the rhetorical question "Who leads this society?" Seidt shared his impression that it is a group of highly trained, globalized, and well-connected individuals at the top. While many Koreans would be happy to be left alone, cut off from the world, their leaders are pulling them into the modern age—which may explain, His Excellency suggested, why Korea is striving to bring international events to its soil and to get involved in global events (for example, sports and the G-20).

In sum, he concluded, Korea is making the best of its tragic history and a difficult geopolitical situation.

When asked by audience members to give an account of what he had seen during his recent visit to North Korea and what the future might hold, the Ambassador was reluctant to make any predictions on the future of the DPRK. It is obvious, he said, that the North has no economic or political long-term prospects, but he does not like the term "regime change" or prognostication.

Speaking about Korean and German reunification, he said that German monetary union happened within six months of the Berlin Wall's falling—long before political union. Seidt argued that Korea needs not just one plan but several, because ultimately nobody knows how events will turn out. He cited the example of Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time of German reunification, who put forward a 10-point plan for unification in late 1989; however, events happened so quickly after the Wall fell that most of those plans proved worthless almost immediately. The Ambassador recommended that several plans and models for reunification should be in place, and maybe monetary union should be a last step.

In a broader context, Seidt foresees Korean reunification as having a significant impact on all its neighbors, so the Six Party Talks are a good forum for discussing and planning eventual reunification (as the 2+4 Talks were in German's case). He also advised that Korea should look not only at Germany as a model, but should also examine China's experience with Hong Kong and Macau, as well as current rapprochement through business and investment with Taiwan.

In the end, Seidt told his audience, what makes the North Korean and East German situations similar is that, ultimately, they have no other way out. He concluded with the reminder that Korea will face the challenge of reunification in a world that has become globalized like never before.