When athletes from North and South Korea marched onto the field under the same flag in Pyeongchang on February 9, this was not the first time that two fiercely antagonistic states, one socialist and the other capitalist, jointly represent a divided nation at the Olympics. Three times, in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Olympics, the teams from East and West Germany did the same. Over these years, however, East Germany had no choice in this arrangement. In accord with West German policy and with the IOC’s blessing, this show of unity was meant to prevent the East German regime from claiming to represent a separate sovereign entity apart from the old German nation. Only in 1968 did the IOC finally grant East Berlin’s wish to march independently under its own flag in Mexico City.
Yet the difference in these displays of political symbolism between hostile states is potentially misleading. It prevents us from recognizing how much the South Korean government can learn from the example of divided Germany. Only a year after East Berlin’s modest achievement in the 1968 Olympics, a new West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, took the first steps toward implementing a principle, “change through rapprochement,” that was based upon a simple idea: you can’t influence a state with which you have no relations. Although his government stubbornly refused to recognize its rival’s legitimacy, it did the next best thing from the perspective of its counterparts in East Berlin. It explicitly affirmed East Germany’s factual existence as a separate part of Germany. This concession paved the way for two decades of successful negotiations over practical improvements in the two states’ relations, including the reunification of families, greater opportunities for East German pensioners to visit the West, and increased trade. These ties did not precipitate Germany’s unification in 1990. But, they made the challenge of bringing together the two parts of the divided nation much easier.
In the same way, the two Korean teams’ show of unity at the Olympics could reasonably be defended as the logical first step in a similar direction. As South Korea’s new president Moon Jai-in enunciated in Berlin on July 6, Seoul is now prepared to treat Pyongyang as a serious negotiating partner precisely because it has no alternative to total hostility. Bonn’s relationship with East Berlin was always difficult because of the communist regime’s ability to manipulate its citizens’ contacts with the West. Yet comparatively speaking, these trials are slight when they are viewed in light of the monumental challenge of dealing with a regime that has the power to monitor every bit of information that flows to its population. East Germans could regularly watch West German news on their television sets, but precious few North Koreans have access to foreign radio broadcasts of any kind, let alone cell phones or computers. Hence, even the smallest openings to the North are valuable. In this respect, expanded contacts between Korea’s divided states, even they are small or merely symbolic, are arguably even more important than they were for the Germans. They represent the only way Moon’s government can hope to improve the lives of the people on the other side of his country’s border.
Germany’s example also suggests that improved relations between the Koreas could be strategically advantageous for Seoul. Once West Germany’s leaders proved their commitment to reducing tensions with East Berlin, it was much easier to present themselves as reliable, independently-minded interlocutors to governments throughout the eastern bloc, including the regime that ultimately decided the fate of East Germany, the Soviet Union.
Similarly, Moon’s readiness to talk with the North could be a step toward an improved relationship with the country best positioned to influence Pyongyang—China. If the South Koreans are able to convince Beijing that their citizens were marching with their northern counterparts in Pyeongchang for specifically Korean reasons, and not some coordinated policy with the United States, Seoul could provide the key for stability on the Korean peninsula that the Chinese have been seeking. Predictably, even the existence of these slight gestures between Seoul and Pyongyang has aggravated American policymakers who want to maintain a disciplined wall of hostility toward North Korea. Yet it is interesting to note that many of the same misgivings were present in Washington when Willy Brandt sought to open independent channels of communication with East Berlin. Henry Kissinger and other officials in the Nixon administration worried that the U.S. would lose control of its ability to define western policy toward the Soviet bloc. Yet despite these fears, Bonn eventually played an instrumental role in reducing the East-West tensions that stood in the way of realizing American interests amidst the unexpected fall of communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Similarly, the enunciation of a South Korean version of “change through rapprochement” could be Washington’s best hope for ameliorating the threat that a totally isolated North Korea currently represents to global security.
A. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification and Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party. He lives in South Bend, Indiana.