WASHINGTON — Divided Korea today reminds me of divided Germany a half century ago in the way that communal bonds tend to override ideological conflict.
North and South Korea, like East and West Germany, were products of deals with the Soviet Union made during World War II. Both protégés of the West owe their continued existence to US willingness to go to war for them, and in the case of Korea, America did go to war.
The Kim Il Sung of the East Germany was the spade-bearded, Stalinist dictator Walther Ulbricht. He ruled by terror and by the pervasive fear of the Stasi (secret police), and he built a wall across Berlin to stop East Germans from fleeing to a hospitable West.
Yet, to the frustration of the American authorities, West Germany poured millions into keeping East Germany afloat for the sake of family and cultural connections. Like South Korea today, West Germany had a ministry devoted to advancing the cause of unification. What South Korea calls its Sunshine Policy, West Germany called its Ostpolitik (Eastern policy).
Today, to its enormous frustration, the Bush administration finds the South Korea it protects more critical of Washington than of Pyongyang. The Washington Post, in a comprehensive report from Seoul, found sympathy for North Korea and anger toward the US. Some South Koreans said that if North Korea wants to have nuclear weapons, it should have them. A 29-year-old South Korean, to whom the 1950 invasion may be only a dim historic footnote, said, "There's no way North Korea will attack us with its nuclear weapons. We're the same country. You don't bomb and kill your family."
The South Korean government speaks in more circumspect tones. But President-elect Roh Moo-hyun sought assurances from Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visiting Seoul this week, that neither military attack nor sanctions against North Korea were being contemplated by the US.
The principle that has guided South Korean policy all these years, that the country needs American protection from the Communist menace from the North, no longer seems to hold. The Post quoted a young man saying, "If the United States left, I wouldn't mind."
That goes further toward reaching out to the other side than anything I heard during my six years in Germany, where there are still American troops stationed.
But such attitudes help to explain why the Bush administration is having so much trouble forging a common front against the nuclear threat from North Korea. And while President Bush may say that he "loathes" Kim Jong Il, when it comes to doing something about it, Mr. Bush may have to settle for half a loath.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.