Korean Miners in West Germany, 1963-1978

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Gi Yoon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2006

Table of Contents

I. The Political Background
II. The Korean Miners' Experiences in Germany
III. The Termination of the Immigration of Korean Miners to Germany
IV. Notes
V. Bibliography

I. The Political Background

            On December 22nd, 1963, the first group of 123 South Korean miners landed on West German soil. For the next 20 years, some 8,600 South Korean miners and 10,400 nurses followed (1). The miners were hired by German mines under contracts of the West German government and Korean embassy. Before coming to Germany, most of the miners had to pass health checks and interviews held by Korean government. Competition was fierce; in 1963, 375 men out of 2894 who applied got the job. Many of them were high school or college graduates, ranging from real miners to bankrupt entrepreneurs and high school teachers. So great was the public attention that the list of the names was even posted on daily newspapers (2). The to-be-miners were educated of basic mining skills and some German prior to their flight

The cause of such massive, government-led labor export lay in the economic circumstances of both countries. On one hand, in West Germany the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, cutting off the supply of fresh labor from East Germany (3). Japan, which had been sending 400 miners to West Germany annually since the 1950s, had stopped its labor export in 1963 (4). The danger and low payment of the job contributed to the low supply of mining labor within West Germany; more labor was essential in maintaining its growing economy.
On the other hand, the South Korean economy after the Korean War had been devastated: the per capita annual income was only US $ 87 in 1961 (5). In 1961, then Major-General Park Chung-hee led a military Coup d'etat and became a president in 1961, issuing the First Five Year Plan (1961) to establish an independent economy. However, the US was reluctant to help his military junta, lest it may lose its democratic foothold in East Asia (6). President Kennedy stopped US gratuitous aids, and smaller loans came instead; this was a strong blow for the Korean economy heavily dependent on US aids. Park's plans, and his hard-earned regime, were to collapse without monetary source from outside. They turned to West Germany for dollars. According to many Korean newspapers, it is widely believed that Korea could borrow 150 million Marks in return to Park's making a "heroic" gesture of sending workers to West Germany. It has become a legend that when Park and his wife visited the miners in Germany and made a speech on "how deeply sorry he was for the poverty of the fatherland", all the miners, as well as Park and Heinrich Lübke, then German president, "cried while singing the national anthem of Korea." (7) However, some argue that the loan was unrelated to the export of miners, and that such false reports were made just to "bring about Park syndrome." (8) Indeed, due to the repressed characteristics of Korean media in 1960s, there seems to be no official record on exactly how the loan was related to the export of miners; the remarks on Park's presidency still vary from sheer criticism to chauvinistic appraisal.

II. The Korean Miners' Experiences in Germany

            Whatever political reasons may lurk behind the scenes, most Korean miners worked hard to accommodate. Many successfully overcame the barrier of language, culture and food while some, unable to assimilate to the harsh work environment, fled to other countries or even committed suicide (9). Most of the miners' incomes were sent back to Korea for their families. Realizing that German social security system gave merits to those married, many of them started to date Korean nurses on weekends.
After the 3-year-mining contract had expired, many miners remained in Germany and took other jobs such as sailors or shop-owners. Some went to German universities, benefiting from the relatively cheap education system. A minority married German women. In 1973 they formed "Glück Auf", an association for miners who remained in Germany : "Glück Auf" means "Good Luck", a salute for miners (10).
In 1967, "Dongbaengnim," or the "East Berlin Spy Incident," took place. From West Germany and France, the South Korean CIA "forcefully repatriated," or abducted, some 30 alleged spies for North Korea, including three miners; their charge was being involved in a network controlled by East Germany (11). Two of them were first charged with death penalty, then on life imprisonment, while many pleaded that they "had cooperated only to get news of relatives in North Korea." Their "spying" charge is still largely contested; some later confessed to have falsely admitted the charge due to torture and threats to the family remaining in Korea (12). The relationship between South Korean and West German government chilled quickly over this "gross violation of sovereignty in the original arrests"; this may have affected the gradual decrease of labor export in the 1970s (13).

III. The Termination of the Immigration of Korean Miners to Germany

            In 1970s, as the first oil shock hit Europe, West Germany's economy stagnated. With high unemployment rates, German miners began to return to their jobs, causing less demand for "Gastarbeiter", or guest workers (14). Half a million Gastarbeiters had been deported to provide more jobs for Germans (15); some deportations of Korean nurses were met by protests by Koreans migrants (16). The last team of Korean miners arrived in Germany in October 25th, 1977; in 1978, West German government prohibited all new employments of Gastarbeiters (17). .
In conclusion, many Korean miners seem to have worked with not only their strong will to succeed, but also their sense of nationality. The money they sent was essential to their poverty-stricken country and their families; they were part of the "miracle of the Han river." Although there exist numerous contests on what political purpose they had been sent to, as well as attempts to overly dramatize them for political purposes, one cannot deny the fact that those individuals, now very much all retired, deserve a page in history.

IV. Notes

(1)      Migration News Vol. 12 No. 4, October 2005
(2)      Germany Arirang, p.72
(3)      Wikipedia Article Economy of Germany
(4)      Germany Arirang, p. 44
(5)      Wikipedia, Article Economy of South Korea
(6)      Nov. 24, 1961 issue of TIME magazine
(7)      Interview with the miners
(8)      Interview with Lee, Su Gil
(9)      Germany Arirang, p. 281
(10)      Interview with the miners
(11)      Judgment on 31
(12)      Interview with Lee, Su Gil
(13)      Judgment on 31
(14)      Article : Gastarbeiter, from Wikipedia
(15)      Growing Gap between Allies
(16)      Germany Arirang, p 227
(17)      Ibid.

V. Bibliography

1.      Germany Arirang, by Kim, Yong-Chul, Essay, 2006, in Korean, translated by myself,
2.      Japan, Korea, from Migration News Vol. 12 No. 4, October 2005
3.      Economic History of Germany, from Wikipedia, posted on 2 October 2006, .
4.      Economy of South Korea, from Wikipedia, posted on 17 Novermber 2006
5.      Help for Korea, from the Nov. 24, 1961 issue of TIME magazine
6.      Interview with the miners, Chosun Ilbo, posted on June 16, 2006, in Korean, translated by myself
7.      Interview with Lee, Su Gil, Korean Journalist Association Newspaper, posted on November 9th, 2006, in Korean, translated by myself
8.      Judgment on 31, from the Dec. 22, 1967 issue of TIME magazine
9.      Gastarbeiter, from Wikipedia, posted on Novermber 5, 2006
10.    Growing Gap between Allies, from From the Feb. 27, 1978 issue of TIME magazine, posted online