60 Years of the Republic: Koreans Go to Work in West Germany

      July 18, 2008 10:47

      The Nov. 14, 1963 edition of the Chosun Ilbo reported a story on miners who were going through 10 hours of intensive training a day without weekends off under the title of "A Tough Road to the Ruhr." The miners were soon to be dispatched to West Germany. At the time, South Korea's gross national income per capita was a mere US$87, and more than 2.5 million out of the total population of 24 million were unemployed. There were only 54 companies which had 200 or more employees. The government's decision to send miners to West Germany was a desperate bid to solve the unemployment problem and earn foreign currency.

      Over 2,800 people applied, and 367 were chosen, their names listed in every newspaper as if they had passed the national bar exams. More than 20 percent of them were college graduates, earning them the title "gentlemen miners." The first group left for West Germany on Dec. 21, 1963. The work was tough, as they had to carry over 50 kg of equipment and work in 1 km underground, where the heat was over 30 degrees Celsius. When they returned to Korea three years later, most of them had suffered fractures. Altogether about 8,300 Korean miners were to work in West Germany.

      Korean nurses working in the St. Johannes Krankenhaus Hospital in West Germany. They were praised for their kindness and diligence.

      The dispatch of nurses began at the same time. Some 20 nursing school students were sent to West Germany in 1962, and between 1966 and 1976, more than 13,000 nurses were deployed. By 1973, more than 6,000 Korean nurses were working in West Germany. They were praised for their committed service to elderly patients and their diligence.

      On Dec. 10, 1964, some 300 miners and nurses gathered in the hall of a mining company in Hamborn on the Ruhr. President Park Chung-hee, on a state visit to West Germany, went there to meet with the Koreans. According to Paek Young-hoon, who was Park's interpreter, the last part of the Korean national anthem, which was played by a band of miners, was barely audible because everyone was sobbing. Park stepped up to the podium and began his speech. "Let's work for the honor of our country. Even if we can't achieve it during our lifetime, let's work hard for the sake of our children so that they can live in prosperity like everyone else," said Park in a speech that came to an abrupt end when he choked up as well. Everyone cried, including the first lady and the officials accompanying the president. The money the miners and nurses sent back to Korea came to around US$50 million, which at one point amounted to 2 percent of Korea's GNP.

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