Hit film stirs up empathy for foreign workers in Korea

Republic of Korea - It took only four weeks for the film “Ode to My Father” to attract one in every five Koreans to the nearest movie theater. This mega-hit has been called the “Korean version of Forrest Gump” by some critics, as it depicts important events in modern Korean history from 1950 till present.

What distinguishes “Ode” from the famous American film, however, is that while Forrest Gump is a one-of-a-kind figure, the two protagonists in the Korean film have at least 18,000 replicas. They closely represent symbolic migrant figures in ROK: coal miners and nurses to Germany during Korea’s development in the 60s and 70s.

But why did Director JK Youn have to choose those migrants as the main characters over others? “Because they are too important to be missed from modern Korean history,” Youn said in a recent interview with a ROK media outlet. “If it wasn’t for them, Korea wouldn’t be where it is today.”

Lacking other options in the aftermath of the Korean War, the Korean government signed a loan contract with then West Germany in the early 60s, agreeing to send young Koreans to Germany to fill labor shortages in mines and hospitals. The wages of those migrant workers were put down as collateral for the loan. A total of 18,000 Koreans, 8,000 male as coal miners and 10,000 female as nurses were sent to Germany between the early 60s and late 70s. The remittances they sent back to Korea contributed more than 2 per cent of ROK’s Gross National Product (GNP), helping to pull the country out of poverty.  

Nevertheless, it is not the migrants’ economic contribution which conjures up emotions from the audiences. It is the harsh conditions they went through to be able to make the contribution possible. As described in “Ode,” coal miners worked 1000 meters down the ground in extreme heat, and nurses cleaned the dead bodies in hospitals. “I didn’t know our previous generation had to work in such conditions,” said a teenager in an emotional voice. “I thank them for their devotion toward our country.”

Gratitude, however, is not the only sentiment the film has stirred; empathy is another. The intention of the director to spur empathy toward foreign workers among Korean audiences becomes clear in a scene where Deok-su gets furious at witnessing Korean high school students mock a migrant couple, as if it were him who they insulted. According to the 2013 statistics, there are 240,000 foreign workers in Korea who fill labor gaps in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and domestic care.

And Deok-su’s empathy is making its way out of the movie theater. On 14 January, a major news channel in Korea reported the plight of foreign workers working in farms and fishing boats in two ROK provinces, which outraged many viewers. The migrants in the report were working in hazardous environments without protection, while suffering from violence and abusive language from their employers. When asked why they did not return to their home country in such conditions, they responded in one voice. “Then who would send money back home?”

Dustin Kerns, a programme  development consultant at IOM Seoul, says that the foreign workers’ reluctance to return home is understandable if we think about the responsibility they feel for their families and the development of their country of origin. “Nepal, for example, relies on remittances for more than a quarter of its GDP. Imagine what would happen if that flow of money suddenly stopped,” continued Kerns, who will soon launch a KOICA-funded project with IOM Nepal aiming to strengthen the link between remittances and sustainable Nepali development.

Yet, no accounts of the economic rewards can justify the recent injustice toward foreign workers in Korea. Some activists working for foreign workers are already urging the government to immediately come up with a list of measures to protect abused migrants’ rights, including the prosecution of the abusive employers. Others say awareness raising campaigns are more important as most Koreans are still biased towards foreign workers. Nonetheless, addressing the roots of human rights violation is not as simple as it seems. Boram Jang, IOM Seoul’s human trafficking research coordinator, argues that it takes far more than Korean government and awareness campaigns to tackle the issue, as there are so many other stakeholders such as the migrants’ countries of origin and recruiting agencies.

“Makeshift measures coming out of rush will do more harm than good, because the issue is very complex and sensitive,” cautions Jang, who has been investigating human trafficking for labor exploitation in East and South East Asia. “The recent surge of empathy for foreign workers in Korea is an encouraging sign, though. It’s always good to put yourself in others’ shoes, especially when the shoe was on the other foot not long ago.”