The 9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. To this day my German grandmother still proudly displays her piece of brick, which she gathered from the ruins of the Wall on the Eastern side, just days after it was first breached. She maintains that she owns a piece of German history. This week in her latest podcast German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, remarked that, ‘‘I think you never forget how you felt that day – at least I will never forget. I had to wait 35 years for that feeling of liberty.’’
However, it is not that simple. The Berlin Wall fell, but authoritarianism did not. Around the globe millions still live under oppression and we have many more metaphorical ‘Berlin Walls’ to overcome. As the South Korean President Park Guen-hye told the United Nations, “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Korean Peninsula remains stifled by a wall of division.” Despite the same language, culture, history and often family, North and South Korea could not be further apart.
To mark the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Korean branch of the Goethe Institut is sponsoring an art exhibition in Korea’s demilitarised zone called the ‘Real DMZ’ project. The aim is to connect the two countries’ shared experiences of division to offer some hope for a reunified future. In 1990 a 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall was converted into an open-air art gallery – now a popular tourist attraction. The gallery’s most famous feature is the Honecker-Brezhnev kiss mural, officially titled ‘My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love’. The mural, by Dimitri Vrubel, illustrates the political relationship between General Secretary Brezhnev and East German leader Honecker. It is fascinating to think that just 25 years previously an East German citizen would not even have been able to stand where the mural is painted now. Furthermore, for the people of North Korea nothing could seem further from reality than Berlin’s East Side Gallery. Dissent or criticism of the regime is instead punishable by death, not just for the perpetrator, but also for their entire family.
The stories we have from defectors are few in number. Those who have escaped talk of the difficulty of living in another country where absolutely everything is different to the regime in the DPRK. When North Koreans enter South Korea they are put under a 3-month resettlement programme to help them adapt to their new life and teach them essential everyday activities we take for granted, such as how to open a bank account. However, over 48% of North Koreans living in the South are unemployed or reliant on someone else, as the culture-shock is simply too great.
The same could be said of East Germans joining the newly reunified Germany in 1990. Adapting to a world of free choice, where not everyone was guaranteed employment, was extremely challenging. Even 25 years later, there are still challenges faced by East Germans who joined the country after its reunification in 1991, and it will take several generations before these are fully eradicated. One can only imagine what it would be like if the same were to happen to North and South Korea.
The temptation is to glorify the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of oppression in Germany, when in reality it is much more complex. The initial reunification was incredibly difficult and many were skeptical, but in the end it was a success. In our lifetime perhaps the ‘Berlin Wall’ is the Demilitarized Zone of Korea. One of the murals on the East Side Gallery reads, “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” This is perhaps the lesson, which resonates with the situation in North Korea, 25 years later.