SEOUL – Fifty years ago, several hundred South Koreans went to work in German mines — the first wave of a flood of Korean migrants whose remittances helped jump-start one of the great economic transformations of the modern age.
The experience was often lonely, and for some their contribution was tainted on their return by the social stigma attached to a job that was tough, filthy and dangerous in a society that looked down on manual labor.
As a result, they feel their role in South Korean history has been largely overlooked, despite helping to seed the country’s economic growth and rapid industrialization by sending funds home.
Mostly in their 20s, the miners — the first South Koreans to work overseas since the peninsula split into the capitalist South and the communist North in 1945 — were part of Seoul’s strategy to solve a high jobless rate and earn hard foreign currency.
Bae Jung-hwan left his homeland in 1970 to work at a German mine before returning a few years later. He says he only recently told his wife and children about his past.
“As the youngest child of a poor family with five sons and daughters, the high-paying job in a German mine was an inevitable choice,” said Bae, who now runs a private educational institute in Seoul. “But the work there was tough beyond my imagination.”
For up to 12 hours daily, Bae carried about 50 kg of rock in a drift 1,200 meters below the surface in temperatures of more than 30 degrees.
“I once worked despite breaking my middle finger because I needed to save money for my family and studies,” he said.
After three years, he returned home and completed his education to become a high school teacher, reluctant to address his past in a competitive society that respected academic scholarship but looked down on those performing what were considered menial tasks.
“Due to social prejudices against miners, I had not spoken about my experience in Germany to my friends, school colleagues and family,” Bae said.
“But I’m not ashamed of my work in Germany any more because it helped me become a stronger person and overcome all hardships throughout my life,” he said.
From 1963 through 1977, about 8,000 South Korean miners went to what was then West Germany. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured in the hazardous working conditions.
They were followed by the migration of about 12,000 nurses over 10 years from 1966.
Total remittances from the miners and nurses reached $101 million between 1963 and 1977, a sum historians say helped South Korea launch its economic transformation from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War.
But their role in history has been largely underestimated because many remained reluctant to talk about their experiences in West Germany, said Kwon Kwang-soo, honorary chairman of the Council of Korean Miners Dispatched to Germany.
About 10 percent of the miners were college graduates who applied for a job they had never previously experienced, he said. “I had concealed my days in a German mine for a long time because I thought it would not be good for my social life,” Kwon, 70, said.
Lured by the prospect of better wages, he abandoned his job as a high school teacher in 1970 to become a miner and extended his stay to study at a German college after a three-year work contract expired. He eventually secured a doctorate in rock mechanics and returned home in 1984 to work at a prestigious state research institute.
“I did not want to disclose my traumatic past because miners have been looked down upon in our society,” he said, adding he made it public only in 2004, while teaching a class.
“Now I can say that my experience in Germany has contributed a lot to my success at home,” he said from his office in a memorial home for miners and nurses built with state money in southern Seoul. The four-story house opened last year with its basement showcasing miner memorabilia, including photos, letters, diaries and tools.
In less than four decades, the money sent home by migrant workers in West Germany, as well as soldiers deployed to Vietnam and those dispatched to Middle East construction sites, helped turn South Korea into a major global economic player and a role model for many developing countries.