An estimated 570,000 East Germans escaped to West Germany from 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, until it fell in 1989. Around 420 were shot and killed by border guards on the communist side as they attempted to cross over to the West. West Germans always warmly welcomed East Germans who made the perilous journey, granting them citizenship, jobs, welfare and even providing work training to help them adapt more smoothly to their new lives. No one who crossed over was criticized for switching ideologies.
Some West German policies toward East Germany created controversy, but they did not involve suspicions or allegations of collaboration with the communists. Rather, the debate involved whether or not to recognize the East German government or what type of relationship to maintain with the Soviet Union and East Germany. The first controversy was settled once West Germany scrapped the Hallstein Doctrine of refusing to establish or maintain diplomatic relations with any state that recognized the East and both sides gained UN membership in 1973. The second controversy was settled with Chancellor Willy Brandt's "Ostpolitik" of restoring ties with Soviet-bloc and communist countries.
But after German reunification, conflicts and a sense of incompatibility were unavoidable, and both West and East Germans suffered from social and psychological side effects of the integration process. East Germans had problems adjusting to a new system and had to endure a sense of being labeled second-class citizens. Many feared for their jobs in the hopelessly antiquated industries of the East. West Germans grew increasingly anxious in the face of tax hikes to come up with the money to fund reunification. The very foundations of their economy, welfare system and public security were shaken. This led to disparaging terms to refer to residents of West and East Germany. "Ossis" ("Easties") were seen as racist, poor and largely influenced by Russian culture, while "Wessis" ("Westies") were usually considered snobbish, dishonest and selfish.
Many Germans criticized the policies of their government in handling the reunified country, even though few had opposed reunification. Some said there was not enough preparation, while others said the process of financial integration was too rushed, resulting in Germany losing its economic competitiveness. Most of all, East Germans complained that West Germans behaved like an occupying forces by seeking to change their system, organizational structure, social groups and habits without asking them.
But more than two decades after reunification, a lot has been accomplished. The economy and welfare system of the former East Germany has improved significantly, and the economic imbalance between the two sides has been reduced. Workers in the former East Germany earn 83 percent of what their counterparts in the former West Germany make. The sense of incompatibility has diminished significantly, to the extent that Angela Merkel, who comes from East Germany, has been chancellor for seven years now.
What led to Germany's successful social integration? First of all, West Germany had a robust economy and advanced welfare system. Another factor was the existence of well-developed and effective social organizations and civic groups. Ordinary citizens played a key role in the smooth integration process. Major charities had extensive networks across West Germany and were actively involved in the government's policy decisions and implementation. But the underlying reason was that a consensus had been established among the West German public that reunification was a good and necessary thing that required the participation of the entire country.
The German example shows that it is only proper from an ethnic and humanitarian perspective to welcome and help those who have arrived here no matter what prompted them to make the journey. Helping North Korean defectors adjust successfully to our society is an inseparable part of reunification.
As of the end of May this year, there were a total of 23,700 North Korean defectors in South Korea. But they still face alienation and ostracism. South Koreans who have positive attitudes toward the North Korean regime have a tendency to treat defectors as traitors. Those who strongly dislike the North sometimes take a biased view of defectors too.
We must help North Korean defectors settle and adjust to South Korean society so we can gain valuable experience preparing for unification. In order to do this, the government and society need to roll up their sleeves to provide them with jobs, welfare benefits, housing, education, training in language and social adjustment, and even customized help to deal with their unique circumstances and ensure that their human rights are protected. The smooth integration of North Korean defectors into our society will speed up reunification and offer valuable know-how to achieve harmony and unity after reunification.
By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo