An ersatz German village tries to lure South Korean emigrants home

Apr 04, 2019

WHEN SHE arrived in Germany from South Korea in 1967 to work as a nurse, Min-ja Fliess was planning to stay for three years before going home to get married. More than 50 years later, she is still there. Sitting in the living room of Sukil Lee, a 90-year-old paediatrician, in Mainz, a small town in western Germany, she talks about her extended stay. “When I arrived I thought German men were intimidating,” she says. Now she has two children with her German husband and returns to South Korea only on holiday.

Mrs Fliess first came to Germany in response to an ad Dr Lee placed in a South Korean newspaper all those years ago. The hospital where he worked was short of nurses, so he was encouraging qualified young Koreans to apply. In total, more than 10,000 South Korean women arrived in the 1960s and 1970s to work as nurses in German hospitals. (A similar number of South Korean men came to work in coal mines during the same period.) The government of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s strongman at the time, supported the exodus because the remittances the emigrants sent back helped to finance industrialisation. A message from the dictator thanking Dr Lee for his efforts hangs on the living-room wall.

For the women who came to work in Germany, life was not easy. Often barely out of their teens, they had to sign contracts they could...

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