South Korea's former miners dig up nation-building past
Kim Kyung-Hwan, the Vice-president of the Association of Korean Miners and Nurses Dispatched to Germany describes about how he worked in the mines, pictured December 31, 2013
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 labour.
As a result, they feel their role in South Korean history has been largely overlooked, despite helping to seed South Korea's economic growth and rapid industrialisation 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 a 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," he added.
For up to 12 hours daily, Bae carried about 50 kilograms of rock in a drift 1,200 metres below the surface in temperatures of more than 30 degrees Celsius.
"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 as 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 hazardous working conditions.
They were followed by the migration of about 12,000 nurses over 10 years from 1966.
Total remittances from miners and nurses reached $101 million between 1963 and 1977, which 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 as many remained reluctant to talk about their experiences in West Germany, said Kwon Kwang-Soo, honourary 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 Ph.D 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 his 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 in southern Seoul built with state money.
The four-story house opened last year with its basement showcasing miner memorabila such as photos, letters, diaries and tools.
Former president Park Chung-Hee, who was assassinated in 1979 by his spy chief, had pushed hard for economic development after he seized power through a coup in 1960.
At the time, South Korea was a poor country with its gross national income per capita standing at a mere $87 and was heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Park had travelled through the United States and other advanced countries to secure loans but all but West Germany took little interest. The German government was also keen to bring in foreign workers due to a labour shortage.
In less than four decades, money transferred 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 economic player in the world and a role model for many developing countries.
Government data showed about 40 percent of miners and nurses returned home while the others extended their stay in Germany or moved to other countries like Canada and the United States.
German Ambassador to South Korea Rolf Mafael praised Korean miners and nurses for leaving a positive legacy in German society.
"They were the model immigration case because they and their children have been integrated smoothly into German society," the envoy said in a recent interview with The Korea Times.