2021-5 / Volume 60 / ISSN 2384-230X


Koreans Who Worked and Lived in Germany

About 85 new countries, mostly by winning independence from their colonial rulers, emerged after the World War II (1939-1945). The poorest among those fledgling countries was the Republic of Korea, which had suffered the Korean War following hard on the heels of the heavy-handed rule by Imperial Japan. The unemployment rate hovered around 40% in the 1960s, and foreign exchange reserves in the Bank of Korea, the country’s central bank, were way below 20 million dollars. (Compare that with Korea’s foreign exchange reserves as of October 2021, which stands at 460 billion dollars.) Desperate to ease the economic distress, Korea joined hands with then-West Germany.

At the time, Germany was enjoying an astonishing economic growth known as “The Miracle on the Rhine,” getting over the wounds of the World War II. An economy growing at an explosive rate meant so many job opportunities, and occupations involving hard physical labor, such as miners and nurses, became increasingly unpopular among job seekers in Germany. Here, Korea and Germany found common interest, where Korea sent its unemployed citizens to meet the labor demands in Germany in exchange for foreign currency. This led to the first labor migration by an official bilateral agreement in Korean history. The agreement on sending Korean coal miners to Germany was signed in December 1963, while the migration of nurses and auxiliary nurses already took place earlier in the 1950s privately before official, large-scale migration by the government began in 1966.

A self-rescue device with a case.
Miners wore this device when trying to force through and escape toxic gases.

Foreign currency remitted by Korean migrant workers in Germany served as a locomotive of the country’s economic growth. A total remittance between 1965 and 1975 from miners and nurses working in Germany stood at 115.3 million dollars, and the remittance between 1965 and 1967 amounted to about 2% of the total exports during the same period. Their working conditions, however, were deplorable: Miners went more than 1,000 meters under the ground, relying only on simple equipment such as knee sleeves, gloves, hip protectors, head lanterns, etc; nurses also had to do all the chores and roles assisting German nurses, or were assigned to hospice wards where they had to work around the clock.

A better part of the coal miners and nurses sent to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s found a permanent settlement and became the mainstay of the Korean expat community in the country. Some of them have successfully joined the middle class and above, and their children are among the German elite. However, many of those who returned to Korea are suffering economic, health and housing problems. The good news is that there have recently been public efforts to improve their living conditions, as relevant regulations are enacted in June 2021 and a series of commemorative programs are carried out, including the creation of a memorial hall, a memorial park and monument, etc.

The Origin of K-Pop:
Kim Sisters, the first Korean girl group

K-Pop is catching on globally. BTS topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2020 for the first time ever for Korean musicians, and their new song "Butter", released in May, stayed at the top of the Hot 100 chart longer than any other song this year, setting new records every day. The band is now rubbing shoulders with world-famous singers around the world.

Few people know, however, that BTS was not the first Korean musicians that caused sensation among U.S. citizens. There existed a Korean girl group that appeared on U.S. TV shows several times back in the 1960s, and their name is Kim Sisters. Consisting of three vocalists, Sook-ja, Min-ja, and Ae-ja, it was not just the first girl group ever in Korea, but also the first Asian girl group that hit the U.S. show business. They began performing in 1953 on stages as diverse as the U.S. 8th Army and theaters across the country. At the time, U.S. soldiers in Korea enthusiastically cheered them, as they adeptly played a whole array of musical instruments while dancing and singing with gusto.

The record sleeve of Kim Sisters’ first album (Released in Korea in 1964)

The front cover of a Korean pop magazine 『Daejung Gayo (Popular Music)』 (Issue 46, 1970)

Their popularity eventually caught the attention of Tom Ball, a U.S. showbiz producer, and he had Kim Sisters come over to Las Vegas in 1959. In a remote foreign country where they could hardly communicate with others due to language barrier, they miraculously made their American Dream come true after countless practice. Their popularity knew no limits, as they successfully produced a single album, and made an appearance in The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular TV show in the U.S. at the time. Their first regular album was produced at the famous Monument Records in 1963, followed by the release of another regular album in Korea a year later. Twelve years after leaving their home country, the girl group made a temporary comeback for a concert in 1970 and made a series of world tours afterward before giving their last performance in the U.S and retired in 1975.

Their achievements back in the 1960s in a strange country far away from their homeland were only made possible by strenuous efforts as well as extraordinary talent, and that must have laid the foundation for the success of BTS and many other K-Pop groups that are taking the world by storm.


Our Reflections in the Mirror of History
- Thematic Gallery Opens

Our museum is working to renovate and open a new Thematic Gallery in January 2022. The Thematic Gallery will highlight diverse themes from modern and contemporary history of Korea which cannot be featured in the permanent exhibition which covers general history, or temporary special exhibitions.

The first two themes of the gallery are ‘bestsellers’ and ‘advertisement.’ Seemingly unrelated, both topics are products of ‘mass (consumption) society’ and evidence of ‘the mass,’ a key agent of modern history. In Gallery 1, major bestsellers since the national independence in 1945 are featured so that the audience can look into the psyche of people and the social landscape in each era. Gallery 2 examines the consumption culture in modern and contemporary Korea from different perspectives found in advertisement, which is a medium familiar to almost every citizen.

『Uri-mal-bon (The Rudiments of Korean Grammar)』 (1937), a popular non-fiction after the national independence written by Choe Hyun-Bae

『Baekbeom ilji (Baekbeom Journal)』 (1947) written by Kim Gu

This issue of the newsletter takes a closer look at bestseller in Gallery 1. The exhibition offers an analysis of why certain books gained popularity and became bestsellers at a given period in order to understand the life and society at that time. The exhibition consists of “Thematic Zone” and “The Bookshelf of the Time.” In the former, social phenomena and trends closely related to book culture and reading are illustrated from the modern history perspective, while the latter part displays bestsellers throughout modern history that are not featured in the Thematic Zone. Visitors can take an in-depth look at major phenomena related to bestsellers with the cutting-edge ‘mobile transparent display device.’

It is said that ‘bestsellers are less about personal tastes of the authors or publishers than about a structural product of the society as a whole.’ That is, bestsellers reflect the collective desire of the mass as well as the profile of the society like a mirror. We hope that visitors will be able to find our own reflection when looking into these ‘mirrors of the era’ at the thematic gallery opening next January.

History Education that Helps Understand the Past and Look into the Future

Education Program for Adults
<Modern History Lectures for Citizens>

Since 2013, our museum has been running history classes for citizens. Starting from the first half of this year, we have changed the curriculum, which used to focus on specific topics and themes, to cover general history so that citizens get a better understanding of historical timeline and more insight into past events. All the classes are given online this year, in compliance with the COVID-19 disinfection guidelines.

The curriculum of the Modern and Contemporary History Lectures for Citizens in the latter half of 2021 consists of 8 classes, running from October 8 through November 24. Each class addresses a total of 8 key topics of modern and contemporary Korean history, as experts shed light on a variety of themes, from the landscape of the 1940s right after national independence to democratization in the 1990s.

Education Program for Students
<Forced Mobilization, History that Never Ended>

We are also running programs with diverse topics jointly with schools, tailored to students of different grades. One of the programs, <Forced Mobilization, History that Never Ended>, targets students between 4th and 6th graders and help them comprehend the history of forced mobilization and feel sympathy with the victims. To meet the needs in the age of the COVID-19, the class is given online, and students can attend either at school or at home.

The program draws on the testimonies of actual victims and gives a clear definition of forced mobilization, so that students can understand what had happened at that time, while illustrating the reality of the practice with related exhibits housed by the museum. Also, it presents the less well-known case of forced laborers in Sakhalin as well as the widely known cases of comfort women and miners in Hashima Island, also known as “Warship Island.” The class helps students learn that the history of forced mobilization still lives on, as many of the victims have yet to set foot on home soil. The focal point of the program lies in ‘memory and sympathy,’ meaning that students do not only understand historical facts but also feel empathetic and motivated to remember the history of forced mobilization and let the world know about it.

Cultural Performance Review

<Families in Classical Music>

A classical music performance was staged on October 13, in tandem with our special exhibition, “People in Numbers: Korean Contemporary History from the Perspective of Population.” Known as “Korean Carmen,” PAIK Jae-eun, one of the most prominent Mezzo-sopranos in Korea, and her younger sister Soprano PAIK Jaeyeon, conveyed the stories of life and family through their performance. The program included a wide array of repertoire, from Korean art songs to well-known film music, all of which reminded the audience of the meaning of family.

New Pansori <Leafie: A Hen into the Wild>

On October 27, a performance of New Pansori <Leafie: A Hen into the Wild>, took place. The show was a stage adaptation of 『Leafie: A Hen into the Wild』, the first million-selling children’s book authored by a Korean writer. The story is about the adventure of Leafie, a hen living in a poultry farm, after she left home and went out into the world in pursuit of her dream. Sorikun (Clown, narrator, singer) KIM So-jin and Gosu (Drummer) KIM Hong-sik boasted perfect harmony throughout their captivating and entertaining performance.

National Meseum of Korean Contemporary History Newsletter 2021-5, Vol.60
198 Sejong-daero, Jongro-gu, Seoul, 03141, Republic of Korea / 82-2-3703-9200 / www.much.go.kr
Editor: PARK Sookhee, KIM Hyunjung, HONG Yeonju, KIM Hyewon / Design: plus81studios

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