HALF a world away, South Korea has watched with admiration as Germany copes with the high costs and political tumult of reuniting a land divided for decades by ideology and barbed wire. Now Germany's distant lessons are being put into a South Korean plan on how to integrate its free-market society with Communist-run North Korea.
The plan was requested by President Roh Tae Woo in January, and is due this summer from the state-backed Korean Development Institute (KDI). Fourteen aspects of each side's society will be covered, from the economy to schools to technology.
``West Germany has been preparing since the 1950s, and look what troubles they are now having,'' says plan coordinator Ha Cheong Yeon.
Getting leaders of north and south to agree on reunification seems as formidable as the day the two sides ended a bitter war nearly 40 years ago. And North Korea remains isolated in a Stalinist dictatorship despite President Roh's formal ties with Moscow and informal ties with Beijing.
The idea of someday fusing the two very different economies has become even more worrisome this year as the North Korean economy has taken a dive.
Its plight resulted from Moscow's decision to conduct all economic exchanges with its Communist allies in convertible currencies. The north will no longer be able to barter its crops or oft-shoddy goods for Soviet oil to run its industry.
The impact on North Korea is expected to be immense, since the Soviet Union accounts for an estimated 55 percent of all the north's foreign economic exchanges. Reports indicate that rice rations have been lowered, and that a shortage of coal is forcing North Koreans to denude their hills of trees for heating and cooking fuel.
``I don't see how they can survive,'' says Dr. Ha. ``Their factories are working at 45 percent of capacity. The economy already went down 3 percent last year.''
North Korea appears to be desperately looking for new economic allies among Southeast Asian nations and Japan, while keeping its close bonds with China.
``From a Western standard, North Korea is bankrupt. But it's still working,'' says Sung Chul Yang of Kyung Hee University. ``But it goes by its own standard. The people are told how well off they are compared to the [1910-1945] Japanese occupation. They think they came out of the ashes of war.''
The economic gap between north and south needs to be reduced before reunification, Ha says.
``We have to let them experience a free market first. That will help reduce the cost of integration,'' he adds. ``When we look at the German situation, we see a big problem in absorbing a poor relative.''
In blending populations, South Korea would have it almost twice as hard as West Germany does now.
The 67 million people in western Germany are helping 16 million east Germans, while 42 million South Koreans would need to help 23 million very impoverished people from the north.
The ideal transition time would be 20 years, he says. Germany is using about 4 percent of its gross national product to integrate the two halves, and that still may not be enough, Ha points out.
``To reunify Korea, we have to go step by step. Some students and political parties are very emotional and want to reunify quickly. But we must go slowly.
``We must change South Korea itself, such as improving the social security system to remove the big disparity of incomes.''
Also, democracy must be allowed to develop more in South Korea before reunification, says Kim Chang Soon, director of the Institute of North Korea Studies.
The two Germanys had worked out 34 economic agreements between them since 1951, Ha says. North Korea is just now trying to buy some rice from the south.
While East Germans had access to the west's television broadcasts, North Koreans have been cut off from the outside world for decades, receiving only the information their leaders give.
``The northerners' values and ways of thought have become very different from Koreans in the south,'' Dr. Kim says.