Saving the Country: Korean Miners and Nurses Go to Germany

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In the early 1960s, South Korea was still an impoverished country devastated by the three-year Korean War; it suffered from a stagnant GNP and a high unemployment rate. The government established an economic development plan through industrialization, but its execution was hindered by the difficulty of obtaining foreign capital.

President Park Chung-hee’s administration turned its eyes to West Germany, which was in a politically similar condition of being a divided country. In 1963, a Korean delegation for loan negotiations visited West Germany and reached an agreement on commercial loans worth 150 million German marks, which, however, needed to be guaranteed.

West Germany came up with a suggestion that if Korea sent 5,000 miners and 2,000 nurses to West Germany, it would lend money on security of their wages for the three-year terms of their contracts. While achieving the "Miracle on the Rhine," Germany was importing workers from overseas due to its shortage of labor. This agreement was the first to have Germany take in labor force from a non-European country, and it was also the first batch of workers that Korea sent abroad.

Many young Korean workers applied for these positions, which paid high salaries compared to contemporary Korean wage-levels. They led frugal lives to send surplus cash to their families at home, and learned fluent German. A total of 8,000 miners and 11,000 nurses and nursing-aids served in West Germany between 1963 and 1977. More than a few of them got married there and established a large overseas-Korean community; others took the opportunity to study there and became professionals of various kinds.

The Korean miners and nurses were recognized by German companies and hospitals for their diligence and sincerity. By working hard while tightening their belts, they remitted home a total of 101.6 million USD over about a decade, a significant sum that greatly assisted development of the South Korean economy.

The commercial loans that Korea acquired from West Germany by this scheme were spent on the first 5-year economic plan, invested mainly in industrial sectors; the "Miracle on the Han River" was ignited by this process.

President Park complimented the first groups of Korean workers for their hard work and contribution to the development of their homeland's economy during his state visit to West Germany in December 1964.

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