(535) Labor exports
By Andrei Lankov
Nowadays, Korea is one of the major ``importers" of labor. The number of foreign workers in the ROK is likely to reach half million in the near future, and perhaps it will grow further.
However, a few decades ago nobody could have expected that Korea, then seen as a hopeless basket case of the international economic system, would someday attract crowds of foreign workers. On the contrary, back in the 1960s and 1970s it was one of the major exporters of cheap labor.
When the government of General Park Chung-hee took power in 1961, it was determined to make things happen. However, the country appeared to be bankrupt.
It had no resources, no industry, no technological expertise, no capital, nothing. One of the few things that was abundant in Korea was its workforce. Korean workers were ready to work long hours under the most difficult conditions, frequently for meager wages.
Thus, one of the stratagems used by ever efficient General Park and his associates was to export Korean labor overseas, since on the international market the Korean workers could be ``sold" for much higher prices than domestically.
The two most important chapters in this policy were Korean participation in the Vietnam War and the activity of Korean construction companies overseas. However, the first chapter in the long story of Korean labor exports is probably least known. This is the story of Korean miners and nurses who were sent to Germany in the 1960s.
In those days Germany was living through an economic boom, and one of the results of this boom was a severe shortage of labor.
So, President Park made a deal with the German authorities: Korea would send groups of male workers to toil in the mines and females to work at hospitals. This step was seen by the Germans as a favor and helped secure a loan Korea badly needed in those days.
The first group of the Korean workers arrived in Germany in 1963 and the last in 1980. At first glance, the program was not very large: the total of Korean miners (all males) who went to work in the German pits was 7,936, and the nurses (all females) numbered 10,032.
The 18,000 workers do not appear to be a large number. However, one has to take into account that in the early 1960s South Korea was one of the world's poorest countries, so the income gap between destitute Korea and prosperous Germany was huge.
The Korean workers were paid more or less normal German salaries, but they led very frugal lives, saving every pfennig.
Thus, on average they sent home some 80 percent of their earnings (after the accommodation fees were deducted), and at some point in the mid-1960s these remittances approached 2 percent of the then GNP: a remarkable amount of money for such a small group!
Most of the miners were people in their 20s, sometimes married and often with a good education. The selection was highly competitive: for the first group of 500, there were 46,000 applicants.
One had to be fit to be selected, but professional skills did not count for much, so most of the arrivals did not know much about a miners' job. They got crash training for a month after their arrival and then went to the pits, often equipped with a German vocabulary of two-to-three dozen words.
Conditions were hard. Miners had to work in very deep pits, usually about a thousand meters below the surface, in the heat of some 35-40 degrees centigrade. They shared small rooms with basic facilities.
Typically, the length of the contract was three years, and many miners saved only enough for a return air ticket. Everything else was sent back home.
The nurses' labor was also back-breaking, and constant isolation put them under additional stress. There were suicides, and some of the girls developed serious mental problems. Needless to say, the nurses saved everything they could and sent money back home.
Mixed weekend tours for the miners and nurses were organized, to somehow cushion the unavoidable problems of their single and very isolated lives (few workers mastered German to a level which allowed them to interact with the locals freely). Paris was a common destination. The tours, as expected, resulted in a number of romances and quite a few marriages.
There was another way of dating. On a day off, a miner would rent a good car and go to a dorm where the nurses lived. Then he would ring one of the bells at random.
A girl whose bell was called appeared at the front door and was invited to go somewhere for a while. She could accept or decline an invitation. If she accepted, everything depended on their mutual chemistry or lack thereof.
The program began to lose its rationale in the late 1970s. The reasons were, as usual, of an economic nature. From the mid-1960s Korea experienced record-breaking economic growth while Germany began to slow down and did not need foreign labor any more.
From the late 1970s the Korean workers found themselves under some pressure to leave, and around 1980 the program was discontinued.
Only about a third of all program participants came back. Most of the ``non-returnees" were nurses, of whom some 4,500 stayed in Germany. In most cases, the reasons were personal: they married German men. A few hundred miners also chose to stay in Germany after their contracts expired.
However, unlike most workers from, say Yugoslavia or Turkey who also began to come to Germany in large numbers in the 1960s, a majority of the Korean males came home.
In the new economic situation these people believed that their skills and money could be put to greater use in their home country. In most cases this was indeed the case.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.