Some 18,000 South Korean guest workers arrived in Germany between 1963 and 1977. They were only supposed to stay a few years but many of them are still here. An exhibition tells the story of their lives.
Jin-bok Kim beams as he recalls the day he fulfilled his life's dream to become an independent taxi driver. Over 30 years, he said he "drove 200,000 people and 2 million kilometers in and around Berlin."
He was in his mid-20s when he first arrived in Germany in 1970. "One day I read in the paper that Germany was looking for miners. I saw my chance to go abroad," he said. He was one of about 8,000 South Korean men who took part in a program to employ miners in West Germany. They were given three-year contracts, and then the plan was that they would return home.
Only temporarily wanted
"The men were really considered as guests," says Rhan Gunderlach. "Their integration was not the aim." Gunderlach, the owner of g+h communication and the daughter of Korean guest workers, is the curator of an exhibition that opens on April 12 at the Korean Cultural Center in Berlin before touring German and South Korean cities. It is supposed to raise awareness about the lives of the miners who often tried to stay in Germany after their contracts ran out, either by retraining, studying or getting married.
Jin-Bok Kim, who was originally involved in the Korean farmers' movement, trained as male nurse. "I never was a real miner anyway," he says smiling. Most of the workers were desk employees with school-leaving certificates or even degrees, explains Gunderlach. "When they suddenly arrived in Germany they were confronted with an environment they had no idea about. Many had real problems with the hard physical work in the mine," she says.
Some 10,000 South Korean women also came to work in Germany during the same period. Germany needed nurses and these young South Korean women saw an opportunity to escape poverty and the lack of prospects in a country that had been ravaged by the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. "South Korea was extremely poor at the time. The GDP was lower than in Mozambique, the Congo or Senegal," says Gunderlach.
Joung-sook Authenrieth was 18 when she arrived in Germany in 1972. "I had just passed my nursing exams and I wanted to carry on studying," she says. This would not have been possible for her in Korea because her father had died and her mother was left alone to support her daughter and three sons. "I immediately jumped on the chance to leave."
Telling stories with photos
Photographers Herlinde Koelbl and Kim Sperling wanted to find out what life was like for Joung-sook Authenrieth and Jin-bok Kim when they arrived in Germany 40 years, and what their lives were like today. In their exhibition, they present seven families and 15 individuals."Not much is known about Korean guest workers in Germany," says Koelbl. "I thought it would be interesting to look at the topic in more depth."
At first she took portraits of the Koreans in Germany in their living rooms, but she explains that this was not enough. "I looked through the families' photo albums and papers and then I selected pictures of their home country, of their youth, of their arrival here in Germany. Documents such as contracts, passports or from their German classes." She then used these photos and documents to "frame" her own photos. "They create a life frame, so to speak."
For his part, Kim Sperling took pictures of his protagonists in their typical living environments - in the hospital, working in the fields or at the restaurant. He himself was born in South Korea and brought to Germany by his adoptive parents as a young child. That's why he has a particularly special relationship with the exhibition.
Sperling says it was interesting to realize that many Koreans still don't speak German very well, despite having been in the country for decades. "They continue to live in a very Korean environment, especially in Berlin or the Ruhr Valley where there are real Korean communities."
German with Korean roots
Jin-bok Kim says he didn't have much to do with his fellow German citizens when he first arrived. "I lived in a hostel and didn't have much contact with them." He learned German with time.
Joung-sook Authenrieth had a similar experience when she arrived in the town of Bad Oeynhausen, in North-Rhine Westphalia. "I came with six other Koreans and we lived in a hostel for nurses. We cooked Korean food together after work or we sang."
After a year she was able to make herself more or less understood in German. "Our work consisted mainly of activities that we could carry out without speaking, such as giving injections."
Korean nurses had a good reputation in Germany. They were seen as competent as well as being friendly and modest, so it wasn't that difficult for them to stay on when their contracts ran out. Nonetheless, South Korean workers were only granted permanent residency years later.
Joung-sook Authenrieth had no problem finding a new job in Berlin, where she then finished her schooling and studied medicine. She is now a general practitioner. She met her German husband at the hospital where she was working in the mid-1970s and their daughter is now also studying medicine.
"I have spent two thirds of my life in Germany and feel more German than Korean. German with Korean roots." Nonetheless, she does still like reading Korean novels, listening to Korean music and of course returning to Korea to visit her family.
Once a Korean, always a Korean
Jin-bok Kim also goes back to South Korea regularly. He is sometimes homesick but he can't imagine going back. His wife is Korean and they have three children. The oldest son is an engineer and the others are still studying. This is not an exception, since education plays an important role for South Koreans in Germany. About half of the Korean guest workers decided to stay in Germany permanently and over 70 percent of their children have an Abitur (school-leaving certificate). South Koreans are frequently cited as "model pupils" in the debate about integration.
Jin-bok Kim, now retired, would prefer to describe himself as an optimistic hedonist. He tends his garden where he has planted Korean trees and calls himself a citizen of the world. Others find him harder to pigeonhole.
"Koreans always say I've become very German. And Germans say I'm a typical Korean. In the end, they're all right," he says, laughing loudly.
The touring exhibition opens on April 12 in the gallery of the Korean Cultural Center in Berlin. It will then go on to Bochum, Dortmund, Goslar, Duisburg and Frankfurt. The exhibition patrons are Hartmut Koschyk (CSU), Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Finance, and Jörg-Uwe Hahn (FDP), Minister for Justice and European Affairs in Hessen.