Asian Editors Circle

Thinking about October 1989 in East Germany and North Korea

In eastern Germany, October is a time to celebrate and remember the 1989 democracy movement that brought an end to the repressive East German regime.

Leipzig, where the pro-democracy demonstrations began, hosts the annual "Lichtfest" (Light Festival) to commemorate the candlelight vigils to protest against police violence towards pro-democracy demonstrators.

German Unity Day on Oct 3 is a national holiday to commemorate reunification in 1990.

Apart from the busy October commemorations, cities in eastern Germany have markers and museums to tell the story of the democracy movement and the history behind it.

In Dresden and Leipzig, markers note where demonstrators gathered in the fall of 1989 and both cities have exhibitions in former offices and prisons of the East German Ministry for State Security or Stasi.

Leipzig has a museum on post-war German history that deals with the division, the development of both German states and the collapse of East Germany.

A museum in Dresden displays an extensive collection of material objects from East Germany that offers a window into everyday life.

In the streets, the remnants of East Germany are easy to spot. A porcelain mural depicting East Germany as a workers' paradise still adorns a long wall of a concert hall in the centre of the city. Large, uniform apartment blocks surround historic city centres.

The late 1980s witnessed important pro-democracy movements: the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Poland in 1988.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, started a series of economic and political reforms. After years of tension, the United States and the Soviet Union had begun a new era of detente in the mid-1980s. The pro-democracy demonstrations in East Germany occurred in the context of these sweeping changes.

I was living in Seoul, teaching English at Korea University, when East Germany collapsed.

News cycles were slower before the Internet and social media, but the demonstrations in East Germany were big news in South Korea because Germany was a divided nation.


Tourists at the truce village of Panmunjom, situated at the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea. Talk of German reunification in the late 1980s resulted in South Korean commentators also thinking about scenarios for Korean reunification. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As pro-democracy demonstrations led to talk of reunification, commentators in South Korea began to think about scenarios for Korean reunification.

The most common prediction was that North Korea would collapse when state founder Kim Il Sung died. Another common prediction was that economic difficulties would cause an East Germany-style uprising, leading to the collapse of North Korea.

These predictions were wrong because they viewed the collapse of East Germany from above, but in reality, it happened from below.

The pro-democracy movement in East Germany had roots in two social movements that were closely related: a peace movement and an environmental movement.

In the 1980s, East Germany devoted more resources to the military at a time when the economy was beginning to falter in response to the weakening of the Soviet economy.

Study groups in Protestant churches began advocating peace as a way to overcome militarisation.

East Germany was a very polluted place and it affected people's health and their quality of life. Concern about the environment created a nascent environmental movement as people complained about the effects of pollution.

North Korea... has no memory of having been a democratic state and it is far more closed than East Germany. This does not mean, however, that North Koreans do not want freedom and that, even in the subtlest of ways, they do not resist oppression. They do, and when the gap between reality and official orthodoxy becomes unsustainable, change will come quickly - just as it did in East Germany.

The peace and environmental movements could not be openly critical of the government, but they thought about politics and created the infrastructure for a democracy movement that blossomed once it perceived a weakness in the regime.

The situation in East Germany at that time remains relevant for North Korea, despite the failed predictions of the 1990s.

Change in East Germany began as a pro-democracy movement, not as a reunification movement. Talk of reunification became serious only after the collapse of the East German economy. Then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl saw a chance to negotiate conditions for reunification with the major powers - the US, the Soviet Union, France and Britain - that had defeated Germany in World War II and created the conditions for the division.

Economic issues played an important role in the background, but they were not the spark. Instead, the gap between reality and the regime's official orthodoxy caused it to lose all credibility. When challenged, the regime responded harshly, which inflamed passions and spread resistance.

North Korea probably does not have the nascent peace and environmental movements. It has no memory of having been a democratic state and it is far more closed than East Germany.

This does not mean, however, that North Koreans do not want freedom and that, even in the subtlest of ways, they do not resist oppression. They do, and when the gap between reality and official orthodoxy becomes unsustainable, change will come quickly - just as it did in East Germany.


  • The writer, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, is a columnist for The Korea Herald.

  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and on websites across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'Thinking about October 1989 in East Germany and North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe