Migration of Korean Nurses like Mama

“Yes, I’m also half Korean. My Mama is also a nurse!” My name is Olivia Biermann. I’m a half Korean German living and studying in Sweden. My Korean-German classmate was not the first person that I met during the past years having the same roots as I do. There are people in my generation whose mothers are nurses from South Korea who found work and love in Germany.

I always considered Mama a brave and curious person – coming to Germany when she was just 20 years old. Her older sister had already been working there as a nurse and Mama started nursing school once she had picked up enough of the German language. Then she met Papa. Mama worked in a hospital until she founded her own elderly care service a few years later. A few more years later she and Papa, who is a civil engineer, initiated a small nursing home, which has become a popular shared flat for 12 lucky seniors in our hometown.

I have always looked at it from Mama’s perspective and understood why she decided to take the leap and come to Germany. I have, however, never thought it through from the system perspective including her decision’s consequence for the Korean and the German health care systems and their silver generations.

The transnational migration of female nurses has long been a reality in South Korea and started with the dispatch of nurses to Western Germany in the 1960’s. This movement expanded as globalization proliferated. However, the reasons for migration of Korean nurses changed over time, and the inside story is not that unpretentious: Within the transforming Korean society, the only accessible profession and specialization area for women was nursing. After the Korean War (1950-53), the country’s government borrowed a development loan from the German government, and as a consequence, Korean nurses and mine workers went to Germany to serve that purpose. Nowadays, Korean nurses are leaving their country due to different reasons, e.g. excessive expectations from the Korean society, dissatisfaction through unemployment, stress, gender discrimination, poor working conditions and low recognition within the hospital.

This worldwide movement is leading to “brain drain” in countries like e.g. South Korea, which can be understood as an emerging social problem. However, there is actually a scarcity of job opportunities for nurses in South Korea, and their migration can also be seen as a phenomenon of the opening medical market, a solution to reduce unemployment and to acquire foreign funds to overcome the foreign exchange crisis. Finally, it gives those migrating nurses the chance to live in better conditions, earn a fair wage and fully express their capacities.

Advantageous brain drain or not – the wave of migrating South Korean nurses is getting bigger. Therefore, the meaning of today’s labor migration for the respective health systems should be studied in more depth. It is about finding out more through quantitative and qualitative studies about the releasing and absorbing countries, the migration systems, and of course the migrating individuals with their own personal history and identity.

As medical sciences advance and people get older, and thinking about Mama: Clearly, Mama is doing good for the demographic changes in our hometown, but how about her South Korean home which is facing similar challenges? How can the migration of nurses be in favor (or not) of the demographic change and health care?

Literature: Ga young Chung (2006). Transnational Migration of Korean Nurses: Labor, Gender, Global Migration – Case study of Korean Female Nurses, Working in Australia. Asian
Culture Camp: “Doing cultural spaces in Asia”. Session 15: “Global Contestation over Ecuation and Labour Market”. Yonsei University, Korea.


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About Olivia Biermann

I'm passionate about Health Communication Sciences and Global Health. From 11/2013 till 10/2014, I worked at the Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics at Karolinska Institutet where I was involved in a study about health promotion among disadvantaged populations in Stockholm for the prevention of chronic illness. I'm currently working as a consultant at the World Health Organization in Copenhagen.

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