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"You need reliable partners in order to achieve things in a globalised world”

25.07.2018 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the South Korean newspaper “JoongAng Ilbo” on the occasion of his visit to Seoul.

What is the purpose of your trip to Asia? 

Japan and South Korea are two of our most important partners in Asia – and I don’t mean that merely in economic terms. Above all, we are partners because of our shared values.

We in Germany feel very close to South Korea in particular. From our own experience, we know what it means to live in a divided country. That is why it was very important to me to visit South Korea during my first trip to Asia as Foreign Minister. My main aim is to see for myself how the conflict with North Korea is perceived in the country. And naturally, I also want to assure the Government in South Korea of Germany’s support. 

Under Chancellor Merkel, the German Government has been very active so far as regards taking in refugees. However, public opinion in Germany was more opposed to this. The Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) were able to achieve an eleventh-hour agreement on deportation policy. Does this signify a major change of course in the German Government’s asylum policy?

I don’t see a change of course here. In 2015, we had an unprecedented situation at Europe’s borders and in the EU to which the German Government had to respond. And that is what it did. It is now important to find a lasting European solution in the refugee situation because in a European Union with open internal borders, it doesn’t help if countries do their own thing. That just leads to more chaos. Migration issues can only be resolved through international cooperation.

Not only the CDU and CSU, but also the Government under Chancellor Merkel, are constantly losing the support of the electorate. What can be done to counter this? 

It is important that we do not allow populists to dictate the topics to us. People in our country recognise and value serious politics based on facts. And that is ultimately where our strengths lie. We are not stoking diffuse fears. Instead of adopting pseudo-solutions, we want to use constructive policies to further our country.

Korea has also been confronted with refugee issues in recent times. Refugees from Yemen are currently on Jeju Island. However, they are trying to gain access to South Korean society and have already taken their case to court to be granted permission to leave the island. Unlike European countries, Korea is not a multicultural nation. The refugee issue is becoming a new problem here at the moment. What advice can you give us?

Every country has to find its own answer. I would rather not give advice. Many people from an immigrant background live in Germany. They are part of our society – our friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues. For example, look at the German football team in recent years. It became stronger thanks to its diversity and went on to win the World Cup in 2014. Strength through diversity also applies to our country. However, it can only be achieved if we manage to integrate the people who come to Germany.

NATO defence expenditure and higher tariffs are currently the hottest topics between the EU and the US. In this regard, you recently expressed harsh criticism of Trump’s America First policy and underlined the importance of European integration. What is so problematic about this policy of Trump’s and why is European integration so important? How long do you think this conflict in the West will last?

You need reliable partners, predictability and a functioning international order in order to achieve things in a globalised world. Medium-sized countries with a focus on international exchange, such as Germany and South Korea, have a particular interest in the same rules applying to everyone rather than the law of the strong prevailing.

Unilateral action at the expense of third parties leads to a dead end. We learned this painfully in European history, and the European integration project is the conclusion we drew from our experience. Europe only has the ability to act confidently if it is united, particularly if we can no longer fully rely on the familiar rules of our partnership with the US. 

Apart from that, the EU is divided internally because of Brexit and the undermining of the Schengen Agreement as a result of the asylum issue. Do you have concrete measures or solutions for tackling these two problems? 

Time and again, Europe has shown that it is able to agree on solutions even if many people were ready to write it off. But naturally it is not always easy for 28 countries to reach a joint position. I have suggested that we should be able to make some decisions in the future without the need for unanimity. But above all, we need to overcome our divisions and to clear up the misgivings and misunderstandings of the past years. That is why it was important to me to meet each of my EU counterparts right at the start of my term in office.

Unlike Korea, Germany was able to celebrate its reunification. How do you see the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula? What advice would you like to give with regard to Korean reunification? 

It is very good news that South and North Korea are speaking with each other again. And of course, the same goes for the talks between North Korea and the US. Pyongyang now has to follow up with action. That means concrete, verifiable and irreversible steps towards the complete denuclearisation of North Korea, with international inspection. The path to this is likely to be long and complicated. Germany stands ready to provide support. By the way, we also do so as regards our own history – we are in close contact with our South Korean partners and share our experiences of reunification.

In the first round of the World Cup in Russia, the German and Korean teams played well, but neither made it to the next round. Did you watch the match? Were there any particularly important moments or scenes for you? Did you notice any Korean (or German) players in particular?

Naturally, I watched the Germany matches and supported the team. I played football myself for years. The South Korean team put up a great fight and deserved to win. Not only did it defeat what was then the reigning world champion, it also finished ahead of Germany in our group. It was an exciting match and you could see that the South Koreans gave it their all until the very end. It was a great performance.

I would be interested to know if Mrs Merkel might find the time to visit Korea.

You will have to ask Mrs Merkel that. But I will be happy to report back to her on my impressions of South Korea.

Apart from the questions we asked, is there anything you would like to add? Do you have any message for our readers?

Even if South Korea and Germany are far apart geographically, there is a close partnership between our countries. I would be pleased if alongside the close political relations, many people from our countries met and forged links with each other. It is well worth travelling to Germany because the country has a lot to offer, ranging from castles and palaces, such as Neuschwanstein Castle, to beautiful scenery and Berlin, one of the most fascinating capitals in the world. Germany is a safe and interesting country in the heart of Europe. There is a great deal to discover there.

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