Posted : 2013-12-09 17:29
Updated : 2013-12-09 17:29

Protests led by 'Korean angels' stunned Germany

Detlef Garz, left, a professor at the University of Mainz, Germany, and Suin Roberts, a professor of Indiana University in the United States, talk during an interview with The Korea Times at the Goethe Institute in Seoul, last Wednesday. Garz conducted narrative interviews with nearly 60 Korean coal miners and nurses, who went to Germany in the 1960s and 70s, for his research paper on Korean immigrants in the European country. Roberts, who was born to a Korean miner-nurse couple in Germany, did research on Korean nurses for her research paper. / Korea Times

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles highlighti
ng the legacy of Korean miners and nurses who went to Germany in the 1960s and 70s. ― ED.

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Several hundred Korean nurses took to the streets in Germany in 1977 to protest against a government order to leave the country as a result of their collective dismissal.

With the support of public opinion, they were later allowed to stay in the European nation after Munich was forced to scrap the order.

Detlef Garz, a professor at the University of Mainz doing research on Korean immigrants in Germany, said that the protest "shocked" German society as these nurses had been portrayed as "the angels from Korea."

"The German general public's reaction to the event was astonishment and disbelief as they didn't think that the so-called angels would did something like that," he said during an interview with The Korea Times last week.

"Weeks after the protest, the government became nervous. It was the first time that the public recognized that this group had the right to stay and to do something to have their voice heard."

Suin Roberts, a Korean-German professor at Indiana University in the United States, noted that the protest was a milestone event which empowered Korean women, who had been taught to be obedient in Korea under the Confucian culture, to fight for their rights.

"They felt that they got stronger after launching the protest because they dare to ask for the right to stay, which was really unusual," she said.

"Initially, they collected signatures and then went on to the street to ask for signatures from the public to support their cause. The protest helped Korean nurses redefine their identity as Korean-Germans," she added.

Roberts, who was born to a Korean miner-nurse couple in Germany, said that many of the nurses didn't want to go back to Korea because they had started a family or new life there.

Nearly 10,000 Korean nurses went to Germany from 1970 to 1977 under the bilateral labor recruitment agreement. They worked on three-year contracts and some of them stayed longer after extending them. Some nurses married German men and started a family.

The agreement to send nurses was signed seven years after Korea and Germany signed a labor agreement to send Korean miners in 1963. Under this agreement, nearly 8,000 Korean men went to the European country to work as coal miners.

Most of these miners and nurses returned to Korea after their contracts ended. But some, especially nurses, stayed there after having family.

Nurses steal show

Roberts made the point that the two groups of Koreans were depicted by the German media in a contrasting way.

"It begins with how they were represented in the media. Women were presented as angels from Korea with beautiful long black hair," the immigration expert said.

"Unlike nurses who got a lot of media attention, miners were reported on less in the German media. If they got any media coverage, it was critical. They were not fully prepared for the mining job or maybe they were struggling to adjust," she maintained.

She said Korean miners were also compared with other ethnic groups, such as Turks, as the former were not as physically fit for the manual job.

"Men had harder time integrating into German society than women," she said.

Prof. Garz, who had extensive interviews with 60 Korean nurses and coal miners for his research, said that most Korean males were not physically prepared for mining because they had no experience.

Many of them were educated people, and they applied for the mining job in Germany as they saw the overseas work as an opportunity, he said.

"Some considered Germany as a stepping stone for their future migration to other countries, such as America or Canada," Garz said.

"As they were not prepared for manual job which required them to go down thousands of meters underground, most of them quit job. They were retrained in Germany and got another job."

Nurses were success stories but this was not the case for miners, he said. "This is probably why miners were reluctant to tell their stories in Germany."

Unlike nurses, stories about Korean coal miners were relatively unknown.

Kwon Yi-chong, a miner-turned-professor, said that many miners remained silent regarding their past experience in the mining sector in Germany and this mainly explains why their heritage is little known.

"In Korea where educational and professional background matters, it's not going to help you if you say you worked as a miner," he said.

Kwon, a former professor of Korea National University of Education, said there were some 20 people, who earned doctoral degrees in Germany after they went there to work as miners.

"I understand that 15 of them remained silent about their past work experience in Germany as they felt shame," he said.

"I am the most vocal about my past work experience as a miner in Germany as I spoke about it since 1979 when I returned to Korea. There are five more university professors who talked about their mining sector experience. But the remaining refused to say anything about their job in Germany," he continued.

Kwon, who went to Germany in 1964, returned to Korea after earning his Ph.D. in education from a German university.

Identity issue

Although nurses were relatively easier to have access to German society due to the positive reputation, Garz said they also had their own issue to be dealt with seriously.

The immigration expert said Korean nurses were assigned relatively unprofessional duties at hospitals. Some of the interviewees Garz met were quoted as saying that they dealt with their identity issue all the time as what they did was chores that were avoided by professional nurses.

Some of them carried dead bodies to the mortuary or some had to bathe corpses. This caused them to question if they were there as professionals, he said.

Germany didn't consider Korean nurses and miners as immigrants as it saw them as guest workers who were to leave the country once their job contracts expired.

This probably explains why the Korean community in Germany is relatively smaller compared with that of other advanced countries.

The Korean community in Germany consists of 45,000 Koreans, including Korean nationals who are there for a short-term period.

Germans call the second generation of Korean immigrants German-Koreans, not Korean-Germans.

This naming is different from what the second generation of immigrants is usually called in other countries.

Roberts explained that the way Germans call the second generation of immigrants is a reflection of the linguistic characteristic of the German language.

"There is something in the German language that it's little difficult to adopt the hyphenated identities, such as Korean-Americans. We use Deutch-Korean where Deutch serves as adjective and Korean as noun. We use this maybe because the lack of a better word," she said.

Roberts and Garz visited Seoul for the symposium highlighting the heritage of Korean miners and nurses on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the labor-sending agreement between Korea and Germany.

The Goethe Institute hosted an event where dozens of former nurses and miners were invited.

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