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Lessons from Helmut Kohl

The success of inter-Korean meetings may not be feasible without the support and agreement of the United States and Japan.
Feb 21,2018
In retrospect, Germany’s reunification was nearly impossible. Many countries opposed the reunification as they were afraid of a unified Germany.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” French President François Mitterrand pressured Germany to a European currency. While the justification was the integration of Europe, it was also to weaken Germany. The former Soviet Union had a greater concern. There were 500,000 Soviet troops stationed in East German territory, and East Germany was the core of the Warsaw Pact, which the Soviet Union formed with satellite states to check on NATO.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to overcome these obstacles. His weapon was that he had built trust with other heads of state. He constantly persuaded them that a unified Germany was not a threat.

President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was won over with 220 million Deutsche marks-worth of food assistance and 5 billion marks in loans. As Gorbachev was pushing for Perestroika reform, he desperately needed economic assistance. The trust Kohl had built with Gorbachev proved strong. Working with Mitterrand, Kohl convinced U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who was reluctant, to offer economic assistance to the Soviet Union.

Bush was the biggest ally for Kohl. The United States made it clear from the beginning that a unified Germany must remain in NATO, and Kohl accepted it. And he pushed for continued membership in NATO in his negotiations with Gorbachev.

Ten months before the reunification, Kohl was busy. He met with Bush eight times, Mitterrand ten times and Gorbachev four times. Trust was built through the meetings. To take the driver’s seat in the Korean Peninsula issue, President Moon Jae-in can trace the footsteps of Kohl. The success of inter-Korean meetings may not be feasible without the support and agreement of the United States and Japan.
Can Moon say that he has steadfast trust with U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “We have an ironclad relationship with President Moon.”

However, there is still no U.S. Ambassador to South Korea after over a year, and a nomination was recently withdrawn even after getting Seoul’s consent. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence led a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but he visited Japan before coming to Korea to discuss North Korea policy with Japanese prime minister. So, in a way, the Korea-U.S. relationship cannot be seen as “ironclad.”

Distrust with Japan is getting worse. Japanese diplomats say that they can not trust the Moon administration. The Japanese government claims that the Blue House released conversations from the Korea-Japan summit meeting. However, Japan’s rightist media Sankei Shimbun published conversations between Moon and Abe that could only have been released through an intentional leak.

The movie “Steel Rain,” released last year, has a scene where North Korea aims a nuclear missile at Japan, not South Korea. The North Korean leader explains, “The United States listens to Japan more than us.” In the movie, warnings of a pre-emptive strike by the United States are quickly dismissed “for the security of all allies.” Here, the ally that the United States is worried about is Japan. Who can say this is only true in the cinema?

An inter-Korean summit could be a historic gateway to remove nuclear weapons from North Korea, establish peace on the Korean Peninsula and the reunification of the divided nation. Yet dark clouds may gather over the success of the inter-Korean summit if the Korea-U.S. alliance is cracked and Japan interferes.

Now may be a historic opportunity as North Korea is willing to come to the negotiating table amid sanctions and pressures of the international community. If we want to take the opportunity, South Korea first needs solid trust with its allies and other neighbors.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 28

*The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Sang-ryeol