130 years of Korean-German Friendship
Kim Jae-shin

Korean Ambassador to Germany

To most Koreans, the most popular images of Germany are German beer, sausages and car brands such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Less known are such historical facts that it was German musician Franz von Eckert who composed the national anthem and served as military band master for the Korean Empire (1897-1910), and German medical practitioner Richard Wünsch attended to Emperor Gojong as his personal doctor and Korean medical doctors’ association later established the Wünsch Awards to commemorate his efforts to prevent the outbreak of malaria in Korea.


The official diplomatic ties between Germany and Korea were established when they signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce on November 26, 1883. Over the past 130 years the bilateral relationship has grown ever stronger and deeper as both nations went through a turbulent history of world wars, the Cold War and divisions, the demise of the Cold War and the reunification of West and East Germany.


As we reflect on the bilateral ties, one of the most memorable events that come to our mind is Korea’s dispatch of miners and nurses to West Germany. In 1961 the South Korean government headed by President Park Chung-hee asked West Germany to help its poor economy. In response, the German government requested Korean miners and nurses. Under an agreement between the two governments, more than 8,000 mine workers went to Germany between 1963 and 1977, and over 10,000 nurses between 1964 and 1976.


When President Park and his wife visited West Germany in December 1964, they met with Korean coal miners in the Ruhr to personally praise their hard efforts and sacrifices to earn foreign currency to finance the country’s economic development. The dispatch of Korean labor force to Germany was the first and the largest of its kind before the Korean government sent troops to the Vietnam War and construction workers to the Middle East in a desperate bid to secure foreign currency and aid to develop its economy.

Today Germany has risen as a leader in the world political and economic landscape as well as in the eurozone. Having successfully completed reunification, Germany has become the economic engine of Europe and its political clout has also grown significantly over the years.


Korea and Germany share commonalities in their economic characteristics as both achieved development through export-driven industrialization. The two economies also focus on the manufacturing sector as they largely lack natural resources. The Korea-EU Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect as of July 1, 2011, will continue to deepen the commercial ties between the two countries. It is also notable that there is enormous potential for further cooperation in the area of renewable energy. Germany has the world’s largest manufacturing base for wind power facilities and the world’s second-largest for solar energy facilities. The country is implementing a bold plan to put an end to the use of nuclear energy by 2022.


Korea also has much to learn from German experiences when it comes to reunification of divided nations. Germans tend to demonstrate great interest in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula due to their own recent experience. The German reunification cost more than 2 trillion euros, and the early phase of the reunification process proved to be a particularly difficult time for the Germans. However, 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany is thought to have successfully completed the task of political unity and social integration.


The year 2013 marks the 130th anniversary of Korean-German diplomatic relations and the 50th anniversary of the dispatch of Korean miners to West Germany. A series of commemorative activities are planned to reflect on the past and envisage the future of the bilateral relations between the two countries. As part of the joint celebration, the two governments are going to print commemorative stamps, launch a logo, and organize conferences and cultural festivities. A documentary program about the lives of Korean migrant workers in Germany is scheduled for broadcast, while Korean musicians and artists are going to put on a performance for them.


In December 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited President-elect Park Geun-hye, former president Park’s daughter, to Germany to jointly commemorate the 130th year of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Chancellor Merkel extended her invitation when she telephoned Park, the first call from a foreign government leader to congratulate Park on her election victory. I hope many Koreans will visit Germany in this important year to enjoy over 5,000 German beer brands and drive on the famous autobahn highway system. In Germany, they will be happily surprised to witness the slew of Korean electronics and automobiles, and the increasingly popular Korean cuisine and pop culture.

[Dong-a Ilbo, January 18, 2013]