“Still Alive: Memory of Economic Contribution of the Korean Guest Workers” by Jung Woo Park

As the wave of immigrants continues to flood into Germany fleeing the war-torn countries such as Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe dominates the newspaper headlines around the world. Interestingly, however, not all of the newspapers seem to have the same focus. While major Western news sources mostly focus on the political implications of this crisis for Germany and other European countries, Korean newspapers seem to focus more on the economic impact of the influx of refugees into Germany. The memory of Korean Guest Workers, whose labor in Germany contributed to the recovery of the Korean economy, is evident through the economic focus of Korean newspapers.

More than 50 years ago, West Germany experienced an “economic miracle,” or the Wirtschaftswunder, during which West Germany experienced rapid economic growth and quickly recuperated the impoverished post-World War II economy. Because this rapid boost in economy created a major labor shortage, West Germany initiated the Guest Worker Program during the 1950-1960s to recruit foreign workers. One of the countries with which West Germany signed the recruitment agreement was South Korea. At the time, South Korea was also in need of economic assistance due to serious unemployment and shortage of foreign capital. Under an agreement between both countries, more than 8,000 Korean miners and over 10,000 nurses were sent to Germany between 1960 and 1970 and their labor has played a crucial role in helping out the economies of both West Germany and South Korea.[1] Many of the Korean workers labored under difficult working conditions such as mining as far as 1,000 meters underground in extremely hot temperatures while sending all their salary except for minimum living expenses back to Korea to support the Korean economy.[2] Their sacrifice has been left as a lasting emblem of patriotism in the memory of many Koreans.


More than 50 years later, on September 21, 2015, a major Korean newspaper published an article entitled “Germany spends 12 billion Euros to welcome 1 million refugees … hoping for a 2nd ‘Miracle of the Rhine,’” a phrase referring to the economic miracle in Germany that led to the initiation of the Guest Worker Program.[3] According to the article, Germany planned to spend as much as 12-13 billion Euros to assist the refugees by providing funds, food, residence, and medical assistance. Contrary to the political debate, the article continued, many German industries viewed the refugees as people who could greatly contribute to the German economy, especially in light of the fact that Germany is the second largest aging society in the world. Interestingly, Chosun Ilbo cites Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler AG, who said: “During the 1950s-1960s, millions of immigrants […] contributed to the economic reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War … Since the refugees are mostly young and have a high level of education and technological skills, those are the people who we are looking for. The refugee influx can bring another miracle to the German economy.” It is interesting to note that the Korean newspaper specifically focuses on the economic advantage of accepting immigrants by citing the historical precedent of the Guest Worker Program that proved immigrants and migrant workers to be economically beneficial – an event that happened more than half a century prior to the current immigration crisis in Europe. This particular focus shows that the memory of the economic contribution of Korean guest workers in Germany is still alive in the memory of many Koreans today. And it is precisely this unique memory that has prompted Korean news outlets to focus more on the economic side of the immigration crisis rather than the political side.


[1] Kim Jae-shin, “130 Years of Korean-German Friendship,” Korea Focus – March 2013 (The Korea Foundation, 2013), https://books.google.com/books?id=JX1dAQAAQBAJ&dq=korean+miners+and+nurses+germany&source=gbs_navlinks_s (Links to an external site.)

[2] Yoo Hyun Jee, “Interview of a Couple who were ex-German Guest Miner and Nurse to Germany” The Korea Daily, 7 Sept 2015, http://www.koreadaily.com/news/read.asp?art_id=3158360 (Links to an external site.)

[3] Han Kyung Jin, “Germany spends 12 billion Euros to welcome 1 million refugees…hoping for a 2nd ‘Miracle of the Rhine,” 21 Sept 2015, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/09/21/2015092100414.html (Links to an external site.)




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