A German speaks about family ties to Pyongyang and the effects of reunification
I was in Kreuzberg, a hip area preferred by artists and expats in Berlin. Sitting across from me was Jakob Grotewohl, a well-dressed 30-year-old German with an impeccable American English accent. I was visiting to watch my old improv troupe perform, and it was the night of his debut show in the
While everyone else dressed in street clothes, Grotewohl was dressed in dark pants and a white shirt, highlighted perfectly by suspenders, having just come from a dinner party hosted by the North Korean Embassy. His great grandfather, East Germany’s first president, had helped the North rebuild after the Korean War and the eternally grateful North Korean leader Kim Il-sung welcomed Grotewohl as part of his family after his great-grandfather died. Grotewohl has never taken the North up on the offer to visit since spending time there in his childhood, but has often accepted invitations by the embassy.
My trip to Berlin was on the tails of the visit of South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, who had come to Berlin to gain insight from German leaders on the 25-year-old success of German reunification and how its lessons could be applied to a reunified Korea, a vision the countries have sought since their separation in 1945. Despite the different circumstances and cultural values, their stories are similar: war, communism, democracy and, of course, America. The biggest difference, however, is how long one division has outlasted the other. While the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, North and South Korea not only remain separated, but the two countries are technically still at war.
Grotewohl notes that history remembers the divided countries the way the winners paint them, but he has experienced the positives of both North Korea and East Germany. He was quick to point out that his experiences are unique and not representative of the common thought, but they nonetheless present a side of history that is often forgotten or misrepresented.
Groove Korea spoke with Grotewohl about his family’s history with North Korea and the German lesson of reunification.
Groove Korea: Tell us about your family’s connection to North Korea.
Jakob Grotewohl: My great-grandfather was the first president of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). After the Korean War (1950-53), he sent a team of specialists to North Korea to help rebuild. My grandparents on my father’s side were both architects and they helped build schools, kindergartens and hospitals in Hamhung. My father was born in Pyongyang while they were there, and the families have kept a pretty close relationship with North Korea, at least until the DDR ended with reunification.
My parents took the whole family to North Korea in 1986. I was there as a child in ‘92 and ’94 because the North Koreans provided medical treatment for my dad, which he wouldn’t have gotten in Germany. He had multiple sclerosis, and he got acupuncture and all kinds of treatment for free. So they were really helpful to us. I was there as a child, so my memories are very different from what I would think about if I were to go there now. I was pretty happy about everything, but of course the context of my impressions was not very complex.
You’re the only performer who dressed up tonight, but that’s because you came directly from the North Korean Embassy.
The North Korean Embassy invites us for dinners. We don’t really have a strong connection, but they have some kind of loyalty to my grandmother and to my family, because (former leader) Kim Il-sung had a really deep gratitude towards my great-grandfather for sending a team of specialists immediately after the Korean War. In ’92, when I met Kim Il-sung, I was 8 years old. He said, “Your great-grandfather is dead, and now I’m your great-grandfather. You’re always welcome here. ” I’ve never taken the Koreans up on that offer, but they really like to keep close ties with my family. They visit my grandmother a lot.
What effect did German reunification have on you and your family?
My parents grew up in the DDR before reunification, and even though they didn’t agree with the politics, a lot of the culture and values that were present in the society stayed with them. I guess the thing was that in the DDR, nobody really had to fight or fear for their existence. And that was a very different vibe than we had after reunification, when my parents had to retrain and find new jobs, which was of course very different and very difficult for them. And my father got sick, so he had to take on a new job while he had multiple sclerosis. And it was pretty crazy.
I didn’t witness a lot of changes because my first year in elementary school was already after reunification, but my sister went to school five years earlier. So I have no ties to East Germany or East Berlin more specifically than West Berlin, but my sister feels a lot more at home in East Berlin. I see Berlin as Berlin, but for my family, home is a little more toward the East. It’s not that they’re ignorant toward the West, but there is definitely a cultural difference in people who are raised in the DDR and people who are raised in West Germany. I’m the first generation basically that doesn’t have that.
Are you happy the DDR fell and Germany is now united?
First of all, I didn’t play any part in it, so I can’t say. For me personally, I can say I’m really happy because I wouldn’t have been able to go to all those places I’ve been to, which is all over Western Europe, and I was an exchange student in the United States, which is now my home away from home. It’s kind of like North Korea: I don’t agree with the politics at all, but the country and the people are great. They’re both beautiful countries and I love them to death, but I just wouldn’t want to live there and don’t agree with the politics at all. But I’m really happy to have the ability to have choices.
But, of course, in society, there are things the DDR had that kind of seem better than we have right now. We have much more of an income gap. I mean it was very, very small before. The people who earned the most, or the political elites, had, like, a house. Nobody had a palace. Nobody had five cars. Well, somebody did, but the income gap wasn’t that big. And poverty was a problem for society, but it wasn’t as much of an individual problem. So, I don’t have a yes or no, except for my individual experience.
How can South Korea learn from German reunification?
The thing I think about the reunification is that, as winners in history do, they like to condemn the previous system to make their system look good and to clearly show, “We won, and what they did was bad.” But what they don’t seem to see, or what a lot of people from East Germany might think is wrong, is that they condemn everything. They don’t just condemn the Stasi secret police, the SED (Social Unity Party) and the dictatorship and the murder on the Berlin Wall, which is right to condemn, but they also say the school system was bad, which they then reverted to later because the original system was better because it was based on the Finnish school system. What they kind of do is also condemn the identity of those people, because of course the life in the DDR was part of their identity. Politics maybe wasn’t, but the life was. It’s insulting because part of your identity is where you grew up.
*Chance Encounters interviews people on the street for unique perspectives on Korean news and culture issues. Interview answers are edited for length and clarity.