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At the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea

Federal President Joachim Gauck holds a speech in front of the National Assembly of the Republlic of Korea in Seoul Seoul/Korea, 12 October 2015 Federal President Joachim Gauck holds a speech in front of the National Assembly of the Republlic of Korea in Seoul © Jesco Denzel

To the best of our knowledge, the first Korean-German encounter took place in 1644, when Crown Prince Sohyeon met the Jesuit scholar Adam Schall von Bell. That was in Beijing, where the prince was being held captive. When he was finally allowed to leave the Chinese capital and return to Korea, his luggage contained a large number of texts – including Jesuit writings. After his forced stay in China, he brought German ideas to his homeland.

Despite the great distance between our two countries, many individuals have helped nourish the Korean-German relationship in the intervening years – individuals from all different walks of life. From the mid-19th century on, the Germans who came were merchants, diplomats and Benedictines. In the 1960s, around 8000 miners and 13,000 nurses from Korea moved to Germany; about half of them settled there. They played their part in generating our current prosperity.

Korea and Germany are friends and partners which can learn a lot from one another. A nice example is the intensive exchange between our parliamentary friendship groups, which can look back on decades of cooperation.

One special bond that Korea and Germany share is the experience of having their nations split up into two states – which is something only a few countries, thankfully, have had to go through. It is that experience, as we lived through it in Germany, that I want to talk about today. While it is, of course, clear that Germany’s story of healing its rift cannot be taken as a blueprint, the things we saw and learned might nonetheless be of interest to people for whom a divided nation is not just ancient history. I would therefore ask you to take what I say today as the words of a friend – a friend who can allow himself to hope, here more than anywhere, that his listeners will understand the ins and outs of national division and reunification.

For both of us – for Korea and for Germany – 1945 was a year of liberation, though in very different ways. Germany was liberated from a murderous dictatorship and a barbaric ideology. Though Nazism did have its opponents, many Germans – too many – had taken it on board. Germany had laid waste to much of Europe and by the end of the war was itself not only bombed out as never before but also divided up and considerably smaller as a country.

In contrast, Korea had had to endure decades of Japanese colonial rule before the pivotal year of 1945. The country was split in two as one of the first casualties of aggressive Communism. Only a few years later, in 1953, Seoul – such an impressive metropolis today – lay in ruins. The city had been captured and then re taken four times. In the 50s, not many observers of world affairs would have predicted that South Korea would become one of the most prosperous and economically successful countries in Asia.

And yet, just a few decades have brought an economic rise that has been swift and impressive, in tandem with the process of democratisation begun in the 1980s. Like in West Germany, help came chiefly from the United States. However, it’s above all the Koreans who are applying their talents here in the south of the peninsula these days. For all the good fortune and success that the Republic of Korea and Germany have had, we mustn’t forget that, while we in Germany can celebrate the 25th anniversary of reunification this year, the people of South Korea are marking 70 years of division that is still in place.

I am aware that there are major differences between our countries’ histories of division. The two Germanies never went to war with one another, whereas the Korean War left wounds that are hard to heal. Plus, however hard they tried right up to the end, the Communist regime in the GDR never completely managed to keep out the thoughts, ideas and information coming from the democratic West. Radio and television from the West kept many people in the East in touch with the philosophies and politics current in West Germany. Their own Government’s propaganda was relative ineffective in the face of that.

And then there was travel – usually only from West to East – and contact and encounters between people from the two Germanies. We cannot forget the overwhelming amounts of material support that West Germans sent to East German friends and relations, and the churches in the GDR and the West maintained ties throughout the period of division. The churches in the West also sent material aid to their Eastern counterparts. Sadly, none of that is possible between the people of South and North Korea. If you live in North Korea, the way you see the world is shaped from your earliest days by the conspiracy theories of a Stalinist regime that rules with an iron fist. In this age of the internet and mobile phones, the people of North Korea are having to live an even more isolated existence than the people of East Germany ever did.

There were niches in East Germany for those who refused to bow to authoritarianism and repression – the churches, for examples. In totalitarian North Korea, we can regrettably see no signs of civil society forming as yet – not even little sparks. But of course there are people there who are thinking about the future.

In East Germany, too, it began with those individual people, who gathered in small groups united by the desire for freedom. In the end, people took their fate into their own hands. In those autumn days of 1989, we of course remembered how tanks had been deployed on East German streets in 1953, against people protesting against the Communists’ dictatorship. We remembered Hungary in 1956 too, and Prague in 1968, and Gdansk in 1981, when people’s yearning for freedom had been violently put down. Then, in June 1989, East Germany’s leaders had welcomed the Chinese Government’s brutal treatment of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. So, in 1989, we didn’t know how the Communist regime in East Berlin would react to the demonstrations taking place in many cities across the GDR. But by overcoming our fear, we sparked a powerful movement. The determination of a few gave rise to the courage of the many. And that’s how the door was opened to democracy and freedom. That’s what made the mass demonstrations in Leipzig possible. That’s what led, a month later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, that moving moment in the night of 9 November 1989 which has embedded itself in the collective memory of an entire nation. Former Chancellor Willy Brandt described that moment as a coming together of elements that belonged together.

Democratic legitimacy was a trademark of the process that led to German reunification. The Peaceful Revolution opened the door to free elections in East Germany, and the freely elected parliament, enacting the clearly expressed will of the people, decided in favour of reunification. The GDR also had an equal seat in the Two plus Four negotiations. The people’s freely expressed decision helped secure the agreement of the four Allied Powers.

Alongside East Germany, all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe chose independence and democracy at that time. That’s what laid the groundwork for a united Europe.

From 1990 onwards, we in Germany faced the task of ensuring that the victims of oppression were afforded justice. All political prisoners had to be reinstated in society and given compensation. The guilty parties also had to be called to account. The civil service needed to be rendered trustworthy, which meant removing former members of the secret police wherever possible. The economic system needed comprehensive reform. It was the start of a very complex and painful process of transformation that has only now come to an end. Still ongoing is the change in prevailing attitudes across Eastern Europe. While the vast majority of people everywhere did want freedom and democracy, there are still segments of every population coloured by nostalgia for those years or even fear of freedom.

Considering such experiences, one can only look at the desired reunification of Korea as a huge challenge. I am sure that this strong democracy with its economic stability is up to the challenge – and there can surely be no greater pleasure than putting an end to the suffering and defencelessness of fellow Koreans in the North.

When Germany was divided, there were voices which called for it to remain so in order to maintain the balance of power between East and West. But to want that was to forget that many people in East Germany were suffering from their lack of freedom – even if their lives weren’t at risk. Who could deny them a life lived in liberty? With that in mind, being committed to the idea of German unity was in part a moral duty towards fellow Germans who were not as well off as oneself.

In her speech in Dresden last year, President Park expressed the hope that the cry "We are one people" would soon be heard on the Korean Peninsula.

Her trust policy is a step in the very direction that proved so auspicious in Germany’s case. Trust and dialogue are the keys to peaceful change and mutual understanding. The important thing is never to lose sight of the goal, however distant it may seem.

The West German Government always held on to the goal of German unity. It was written into the constitution. And the policies pursued laid important groundwork for the events of 1989; although it was not always clear and transparent at the time, West Germany’s Ostpolitik and the CSCE process in the late 60s and 70s prepared the ground for German and European unification.

We in Germany and Europe learned something from that: dialogue, not only on the so-called hard topics of security policy but also on business, research, culture and nowadays the environment too, can help open channels of communication. Germany will gladly continue supporting the Republic of Korea in its maintenance of such conversations. I hope that the diplomatic relations we entered into with Pyongyang in 2001 can also help improve communication.

Germany, like the European Union as a whole, remains engaged in critical dialogue with North Korea. We must be under no illusions with regard to the situation in the north of the Korean Peninsula. The signals coming out of North Korea are – to put it mildly – contradictory, fluctuating between readiness for dialogue and confrontation. It is good news – and a correct and humane move on the part of both sides – that families are to meet up this month who have, like the country, been separated for decades. But it is shocking that the North Korean regime still considers nuclear armament more important than food supplies for its people and economic development for the country. Nonetheless, South Korea and its partners should advocate a change of policy, they should keep working on it and they should present North Korea with alternatives. Open and constructive dialogue remains the best way to pursue those objectives.

The recent resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States is an encouraging example of rapprochement after decades of animosity. The latest agreement reached with Iran also gives cause for hope. Even when a situation seems utterly hopeless, agreement is still possible. Ultimately, what is needed is always openness to other points of view and willingness to compromise.

In that context, offering confidence-building measures is a sign of strength and self-possession. This is a road worth continuing along. I am very much convinced that Korea already speaks from such a position of strength – the kind of strength that doesn’t need rabble-rousing rhetoric.

Though the Cold War is now past, the continued separation of Korea remains a source of unease. And yet so much has changed in the last 65 years, since the outbreak of the war that so badly devastated Korea. Nowadays, the Republic of Korea stands as a self-confident player on the world stage – as a democracy enriched by critical and vibrant civil society; as a powerful economy; as an important cultural and technological influence in the internet age. That attractiveness will ultimately take hold throughout the Korean Peninsula. And its pull will be all the stronger the more clearly South Korea is seen as a land of freedom.

We have heard the debates in some Asian countries where people suggest that human rights and liberal democracy are simply the result of outside cultural – Western – influences. Your President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung formulated probably the clearest response to such arguments more than twenty years ago:

"Culture is not necessarily our destiny. Democracy is."

An especially potent symbol of Korea’s road to democracy is the Korean Gukhoe. Historically speaking, it was far from inevitable that this parliament should develop over the course of its existence into a central hub of democratic responsibility.

As a democracy, Korea works for peace in North-East Asia today. I particularly welcome all of your President’s initiatives relating to so-called soft topics. They are ideal for dismantling tensions. In that endeavour, it is important to take neighbouring countries’ legitimate security interests into consideration. That’s another thing we in Germany learned.

Commitment to universal human rights, the rule of law, the separation of powers and representative democracy links South Korea with Germany, with its Western partners and with others, especially Japan, in the Asia-Pacific region. Korea and Japan are important partners to Germany. I know that history casts a shadow over Korean-Japanese relations. The 50th anniversary of relations between Japan and Korea being normalised – this year – is an opportunity for you as neighbours to deepen your mutual understanding, which is in the interests of future generations. Of course, this has to come from both sides.

In Germany, we also learned how vital it is to confront the past if reconciliation is to work. One of the mechanisms we found most useful was dialogue about school textbooks. School books help shape the way young people see history and their neighbouring countries. Germany has supported that dialogue between Korea and Japan through the Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig. Such conciliatory gestures weren’t easy in Europe either. They take a lot of time and energy – but they always reveal good ways to increase mutual understanding.

We Germans have experienced the joy of reconciliation and reunification. And of course we hope that our Korean friends will also find their way to unification. I can understand the fear, particularly among older people in Korea, that the desire for reunification might eventually disappear. Young people from South Korea go to university in China, for example, or get jobs in Asia’s rapidly developing cities. They are looking out into the world, and their interest in the other Korea may be waning. However, it does not do to underestimate the power of a common language and the sense of belonging generated by tradition and history. The Koreans living in the north of this peninsula have a right to live in peace and liberty too. In the long, proud history of Korea, the past 70 years will one day perhaps be a mere episode. Don’t lose heart!

Germany’s unity and its new role imparts a new sense of responsibility both within Europe and on the world stage. In relation to Korea, our responsibility is to follow its progress with interest and to provide advice where advice is welcome – now and in the future.