koreafocus e-mail service title


Interview Content



Koreans’ Germany Fantasy a Little Inflated


Jeong Jun-ho

Staff Reporter
The Hankook Ilbo

There was a time when products made in the USA and made in Japan were considered the best you could get. Everything from everyday appliances to policies and politics were imported from the two countries. When it came to economic systems, it was not so long ago that we reformed and adopted U.S. and Japanese systems. Now the focus of such admiration is shifting to Germany, an attitude that is shared by other countries.


In the 2014 Nation Brands Index, published last November by the global market research company Anholf-GfK Roper, Germany was ranked No. 1, replacing the United States, which had occupied the top spot since 2009. And while the German illusion is not confined to Korea, it is unusually strong here. From kitchenware and medicine to cars, policies and politics, we are trying to possess or import things German and use them as models.


In the most recent example, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said a few days ago that in its effort to reform the labor market, Korea should use Germany`s Hartz reforms as one of the models.


In a BBC poll not long ago, 84 percent of Koreans expressed a positive view of Germany. In Europe, however, Germany is also criticized for implementing beggar-thy-neighbor policies.


At this point, one can`t help wondering what Germans think of Koreans` attitude. So we asked Rolf Mafael, who has been the German ambassador to Korea since 2012. “It was when I came to Korea that I realized Germany is a good country,” he said. Though he did not really answer the question, if we take into account that he is a diplomat, it can be surmised that he believes Korea`s fantasies about Germany are a little inflated.


Q. When Choi Kyung-hwan, deputy prime minister and finance minister, presented Germany`s Hartz reforms as a model for reform of Korea`s labor market, he specifically mentioned easing measures that tend to overprotect regular workers. Does Korea have the correct understanding of the Hartz reforms?


A. (Ha, ha) The Hartz reforms, which began in 2003, are very comprehensive. They do cover labor rights, but they also include social security. The Hartz reforms are successful because they have significantly lowered the unemployment rate. In the space of 10 years they have raised the employment rate so high that it can be called an employment boom. Thanks to the reforms, there is much greater flexibility in terms of fixed-term and part-time jobs, and at the same time legal systems have been put into place to ensure that such non-regular workers are treated the same as regular workers. In regard to pay, working hours and days off, there is no discrimination between regular and non-regular workers. It`s important to note that these two things happened at the same time. In Germany, legal institutions and wage agreements between the parties concerned are important. All parties abide by the agreements made by industrial unions and management councils. In such social partnerships, labor conditions and wage agreements are very important.


Q. Do you think such reforms are applicable to Korea?


A. German companies that have entered Korea say investment is very difficult here because of the inflexible labor market. It would be good to use the policies designed to create a more flexible labor market that Germany began in 2003. Although Germany has achieved almost complete employment through these reforms, one problem is the rise of low-income labor. There are a lot of jobs that fall under the level of 9.5 euros per hour, or about 13,000 won. Moreover, the current government is moving to set the minimum wage at an equivalent to 12,000 won per hour. The important thing to remember is that the 2003 Hartz reforms were a good decision, and that they`ve been credited with bringing about full employment. But 10 years down the road, weaknesses have surfaced, so it`s necessary to fix them and be amenable to change. Rather than saying “this policy is good” or “that policy is good” or “that`s the direction we should take,” we need the flexibility to adjust social security and other such matters according to the economic situation.


Q. The amount that you mentioned above, 12,000 won — what does that signify?


A. The current German government is trying to set the minimum wage at 8.5 euros, but actually 9.5 euros is generally taken as the minimum wage level.


Q. There has been backlash to the Korean deputy prime minister`s statement. There is concern that what it means is easier layoff of regular workers. Are you saying various support measures are necessary when adopting such a model as Germany`s reforms?  


A. It is not for me to say what policies must be taken while bringing flexibility to the labor market. I believe the important point is to create employment and strengthen the economy. It is for the Korean people to decide on the policies that will help them achieve this goal.


Q. A recent BBC poll on national image showed that 84 percent of Koreans surveyed had a positive image of Germany. Why do you think Koreans like Germany?


A. First, relations between the two countries have traditionally been good. Germany became a divided nation in 1945 and was reunited in 1990. This year is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I believe one of the reasons why Koreans like Germany is this history of successful reunification. The more elderly Koreans will clearly remember Germany`s economic support for Korea`s reconstruction in the 1960s. Germany provided Korea with loans and Korea sent miners and nurses, and the people who remember this know that Germany contributed to Korea`s economic development. It is these things that have created a good image of Germany in the Korean people`s minds. Also, in solving various social problems Germany has presented solutions that Koreans seem to find ideal.


Q. Koreans see Germany as a nation of thrift, industriousness and the meister mentality.


A. The people I meet in the street have this stereotypical image of Germany: cars, beer, Beethoven, and the environment. And they see Germany`s main virtues as industriousness, efficiency and strong organization. But these three virtues apply equally to Koreans. So it makes me think Koreans like Germans because they are alike in aspects such as these. It`s an interesting perspective, but I do think the two are alike.


Q. Specifically, what similarities do you see between the two countries? 


A. Korea and Germany are similar structurally in that they are both strong in manufacturing and export-oriented, and face the challenges of a low birthrate and the aging of society. I think this is why Koreans are especially interested in Germany compared to other countries.


Q. Korea wants to learn from Germany`s small- and mid-sized enterprise (SME) support policies.


A. Germany`s SMEs have some distinctly German characteristics. There are globally successful SMEs with employee numbers of less than 100, 200 or 500. The prime reason for success is the distinctive German entrepreneurial spirit, and then the tax benefits and other measures that encourage such entrepreneurial spirit. Most SMEs are in manufacturing, largely due to Germany`s advanced technology and excellent engineers. Under our dual education system, students go to school and at the same time learn firsthand the skills required by industry. In this lies the strength of Germany`s small businesses. What`s important is to secure competitiveness at home, in the local area, before expanding globally.


Q. Korea tried to introduce “meister high schools” and learn from the dual system. What are your thoughts on that?


A. Meister high schools are focused on vocational training. The students practice the skills and gain the knowledge needed in the field. This takes Germany`s dual education system a step further. Under the dual system, students undertake an apprenticeship at a certain company. They receive a set wage and in addition on-site vocational training while attending school. For example, they might go to work three days of the week and attend school for the remaining two days. On the part of the company, they are able to later employ students who have already received on-the-job training, and on the part of the students they learn from the beginning the skills that companies need. I believe Korea`s meister schools have no such system.

1 2