Other Articles in this Series on Korean Coins
South Korea's hwan coinage (1959-1975)
South Korea's First Gold and Silver Commemorative Coins (1970)
Circulation Coins of the Republic of Korea
The 42nd World Shooting Championships Commemorative Coins (1978)
The Fifth Republic Commemorative Coins (1981)
South Korean Pattern Coins (1965-1966)
Bank of Korea Mint Sets

South Korean Coin Database

 The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative Coin

The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative Coin (1975)
- 광복 30주년 기념 백원

The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won commemorative coin was released in the tense and somewhat tentative atmosphere of South Korea in 1975. The coin was the very first commemorative to be made in that country, and it was introduced as a numismatic salute to the nation's thirtieth year of independence from the Empire of Japan. The coin emerged from a proposal that initially envisioned a slightly grander, two-coin legal tender commemorative issue; however the uncertainties and controversies of the era inevitably intruded to abridge the original plan. Nonetheless, this coin inaugurated a new beginning for the South Korean Mint as it embarked upon completely independent operations at a new, modern minting facility. This commemorative issue also resulted in the country's very first locally-made (yet impulsively-planned) proof coin and proof medal, during which the Mint endured an incredibly steep learning curve that typified the development of other Korean government and business ventures of this era.

South Korea in 1975

Of the most significant features of South Korea in 1975 was the state of the ongoing economic change that had been taking place since the nation's commitment to "Export-Oriented Industry Construction" in the 1960s, and since the 1973 adoption of the "Heavy and Chemical Industrialization" policy.   In a very short period of time, South Korea was going through the incredible metamorphosis from subsistence-level, Third World agricultural state to that of an export-driven, heavy industry powerhouse with First World competitiveness.   By 1975, South Korea was in the middle of its Third Five Year Plan (1972-1976), which placed an emphasis on the development of export-specific machinery and chemicals, as well as shipbuilding, transportation, and household electronics.   The story of the pell-mell growth of just one company under these policies is rather instructive:   Just two years after committing itself to its namesake industry, Hyundai Shipbuilding (later to be known as Hyundai Heavy Industries) sent Atlantic Baron, the very first of two VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers) of 230,000 deadweight tonnage, down the slipway at its brand-new shipyard in Ulsan in August 1974.   Hyundai had successfully bid on the construction of the ships in 1972, just barely after the company had begun construction of the gigantic yard where the company was supposed to make them, and well before Hyundai's small core of rookie naval architects and engineers had fully learned the trade of shipbuilding at the Clydeside shipyards in Scotland.   Fast forward ten years, and Hyundai Heavy Industries is the world's largest shipbuilder, capturing 20% of the world's ship orders.   In part, it is the story of a company that took a crash course in learning their trade "on the job," with one result being that they began putting their Clydeside mentors, and other shipbuilders around the world, out of work.

Hyundai Heavy Industries' first supertaker, the Atlantic Baron.

Atlantic Baron was South Korea's very first "super-tanker" ship to be produced at the (now) massive Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan, with shipyard and vessel having been built simultaneously.  Hyundai Heavy Industries' achievement in producing this "first" for Korea garnered much attention in Korea at the time, although the event may have been seen as insignificant by Hyundai's foreign competitors.  They would soon change their attitudes.  President Park was present at the ship's launching (top right, in blue suit), along with Hyundai executives, and company founder, Chung Ju-yung (in brown suit).  Hyundai gave commemorative plaques (bottom right) to visitors to its shipyard that featured an image of the Atlantic Baron under construction.
Under the Five Year Plans of the 1970s, similar breakneck-paced, rags-to-riches narratives accompanied the rise of the other South Korean industry behemoths:  Lucky Goldstar (LG), Samsung, Daewoo, Ssangyong, and Pohang Iron & Steel Company (POSCO).   In monetary terms, overseas orders for South Korean companies went from an annual $170 million USD in 1973 to $14 billion USD by 1983.   Of note was the fact that these companies took different paths to the common outcome of world-class competitiveness in their respective industries.

Their one, inescapable constant was state direction.

At the helm was South Korean president Park Chung-hee in the role of wartime commander-in-chief, guiding these well-connected, family-owned Korean businesses towards the government's "target industries."   To power this model of growth, Park's government orchestrated the borrowing of money in international markets at sovereign rates (Japan was a major contributor) and then re-lent this funding locally with government guarantees.   The president was helped along in this effort by an economic managerial system staffed by engineering-oriented technocrats, his secretariat in the role of quasi-wartime cabinet, and the "Emergency State Council" —an expedient that acted with the authority of the recently-deactivated legislature.   The political instrument making this possible was the "Yushin" (Revitalization) Constitution, which inaugurated president Park's "Fourth Republic" in October 1972.   At its essence, the Yushin Order that goverened South Korea in the 1970s was a codified form of martial law that allowed for the institution of a leaner, meaner autocracy that had the ultimate goal of building the nation's economic and military power in the shortest possible time, with minimal opposition and maximum effect.

Domestic events in South Korea in 1975.

In an effort to control student demonstrations against the rule of the Yushin Constitution, the government ordered the Korean Army to occupy the campus of Korea University on April 8, 1975 (top left).  Under the authority of Emergency Decree No. 7, Korea University and all twenty-five major universities in the country were temporarily closed that same day following the protest-suicide of Seoul National University student, Kim Sang-jin.  The following day, April 9th, Park's government executed, without appeal, eight men of the "People's Revolutionary Party," (bottom right) a fictional political grouping created by Park's security services under torture.  The eight were sent to the gallows less than 24 hours after their sentencing in court.  The People's Revolutionary Party episode largely escaped international media attention, since other major newsworthy events taking place in Asia that month had stolen much of the limelight, such as the death and funeral of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and the collapse of South Vietnam.

The political opposition to president Park often had to work outside of Korea, as is the case with the anonymous publishers of this 100-page newsletter (top right), which was published in Tokyo by Korean dissidents in 1976.  In addition to political controls, the Park government was intent on controlling the direction of popular culture.  In late November and early December 1975, several popular entertainers were arrested and sentenced on charges of using marijuana, probably as a lesson to others.  Musicians Shin Joong-hyun, a guitarist and composer known as the "Godfather of Korean Rock," and Kim Choo-ja, probably the most popular female singer of the time, were both caught up in the crackdown and did not emerge again on the Korean music scene until after president Park's death (bottom left).  In Shin's case, the government had asked the guitarist to write a paean to president Park in 1972.  Shin opted instead to write a song in praise of the natural beauty of the country, which resulted in harassment by authorities and the frequent banning of his music by the time he was arrested in 1975.
Many observers of the South Korean system in the 1970s could hardly fail to notice the irony that, if taken altogether, these policies made the anti-communist Park Chung-hee appear as Joseph Stalin redivivus.   The economic parallels were there:  Big conglomerates dominated completely by the state, the development of dual-purpose defense-oriented heavy industry and large projects, a nomenklatura of technocrats and economic advisors, along with suffocating financial controls.   A closer examination of Park's controls on civil society also recalled Stalin's methods:  Suppression of political opposition, the use of brutality by the police and intelligence agencies, ubiquitous surveillance by state security, a dependent judiciary, "nanny state" social controls, and the near impossibility for citizens to travel abroad.

Events in 1974 and 1975 started to reveal sharp divisions between the citizens and the state as a result of the Yushin Order.   Dissidents' campaigns for human rights and basic freedoms organized by a coalition of Christian churches and university students increasingly challenged the president's rule.   Park responded with a series of sudden "Emergency Decrees," backed by martial enforcement, that prohibited "anti-Yushin activities" (Emergency Decrees Numbers 1 and 4) in 1974.   In April 1975, the government ordered the closure of Korea University, and soon after, the closure of twenty-five other major universities.   To stay on the offensive, the government executed eight men of the supposed "Second People's Revolutionary Party" that same month on completely fictitious charges.   The very next month, Park declared his infamous Emergency Decree Number 9, which prohibited any form of antigovernment activity, criticism of the president, or meaningful exercise of free speech.   The government even felt the need to go so far as to discipline pop stars in a major marijuana witch hunt in December 1975, as well as to enforce a "maximum hair-length" policy for men.

These aggressive actions and the ever-present KCIA surveillance had the effect of almost completely enfeebling Park's domestic opposition by the end of 1975. At the same time, the steadily improving conditions in the country and pace of economic growth had given many Koreans the impression that prosperity had at long last arrived. President Park was even granted a short reprieve from the annoyance of increasing international criticism of his regime in the wake of the defeat of his regional allies, South Vietnam and the Khmer Republic. With such indicators pointing in the government's favor, the mood that year was nonetheless uneasy.  One observer of South Korea during this period noted that the country seemed to be in a state of "permanent emergency," although the Park regime had purposely crafted this perception to some extent in order to justify its actions. Yet some very real concerns existed over the country's balance-of-payments deficits and foreign debt obligations deriving from the government's methods of fund raising. Related were the effects of the worldwide recession and oil crisis of the early 1970s, both of which heavily affected the country's exports and forced the government to devalue the South Korean won by 21% in December 1974.

Notwithstanding the domestic situation, the event that captured much of the attention that year was the fall of Saigon. The conspicuous unwillingness of the United States to assist South Vietnam just prior to its collapse had perhaps confirmed the Park government's suspicions about American policy. Already made wary by the Americans' overtures toward mainland China and the decision to withdraw the U.S. 7th Infantry Division from Korea, the Park regime already had contingency plans in the works by 1975 to offset lessened support from the United States. One of these (later to be known as Washington's "Koreagate" scandal) would soon blow up in Park's face, but other efforts were better placed at attempting to create an independent national defense, including the development of nuclear weapons. The combination of these developments and the overall direction of governing in the country, however, seemed to foreshadow a darker, ever more authoritarian Republic under president Park.

Improvements at the Korean Mint

By 1975, the South Korean Mint ( 한국조폐공사 ) had made important advances toward becoming a highly competent national mint capable of producing a growing range of currency and security printing services for the Bank of Korea, as well as international clients. The Mint had come a long way since the end of the Korean War when it was barely able to print the country's banknotes due to deficits in technology, equipment, and manpower. After the war, the Mint had gotten back to designing and printing South Korean banknotes, but still had to rely on overseas contracting to complete key operations in their manufacture. Without a coin mint of its own, South Korea also had to resort to the complete import of all three of the nation's hwan-series coins from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia from 1959 to 1962.

Sizeable investments for the Mint only materialized after Park Chung-hee's military junta came to power in 1961, allowing for the establishment of a fully functioning mint. As with the funding of other state and private enterprises, the Park government's investments in the Mint took the form of new equipment, buildings, and expertise in order for the Mint to operate at "international standards." One important driving force behind these developments was just basic necessity: South Korea needed to expand currency minting operations if it wanted to engender economic growth and stability, in addition to gaining the advantages of keeping the funding of the work in Korea and not paying for work to be done overseas. In the 1960s, the Mint began to expand its workforce, sending its new designers, technicians and other staff for training at foreign mint facilities; the Osaka Mint in Japan was a key location for this technical training. These efforts culminated in the opening of South Korea's very first coin mint at Dongnae in 1966, near the coastal city of Busan.

Coin bank commemorating the completion of construction on the Gyeongsan ( 경산 ) coin mint in 1975.

The opening of Komsco's new coin mint in Gyeongsan ( 경산 ) in 1975 was not only meant to allow for the large scale, independent production of South Korea's own national currency, but also for the Mint to expand into other areas of currency minting, such as commemorative coins and medals.  Upon completion of the Gyeongsan coin mint, this commemorative coin bank was issued for the event, and it was fashioned after a 17th Century Korean Sang pyŏng tong bo (常平通寶) coin (right).  Dated 4 July 1975, this metal coin bank includes the title, 한국조폐공사 경산조폐장 ("The Korean Mint's Gyeongsan Coin Mint").

Komsco also intended the new facility to continue to take on minting services for international clients.  Toward this end, the government included a full-page advertisement for the Mint (left) in its English-language publication meant to publicize the country's 1975 Liberation Day holiday.
In the nine years from 1965 to 1974, the Korean Mint had gained progressively advanced capabilities in manufacturing coins, ranging from striking coins, to plaster cast engraving, to producing the working dies and pattern coins, among a myriad of other involved processes. By the early 1970s, the Dongnae factory was manufacturing coins with mintages in the hundreds of millions. With an eye towards establishing minting contracts with foreign governments, the Mint incorporated the English title, the "Korea Minting and Security Printing Corporation" (Komsco) in 1971. Its first overseas contracts involved the printing of hundreds of millions of excise stamps for Thailand in May 1970, followed by the minting of 200 million Taiwanese 1 Yuan coins (Y-536) in February 1973.

The leadership of Komsco in 1975 was in the hands of Korean Marine Corps Brigadier General Jeong Sae-Woong, a government appointee who rode in on the coattails of the 1961 military coup d'etat that put Major General (now President) Park in power.  Jeong Sae-woong was appointed the 9th President of Komsco in September 1972.  As a member of President Park's "Revolutionary Military Government," he was deeply embarrassed by the fact that South Korea could not independently make the money that its citizens used.  Mr. Jeong was determined to turn this situation around.  On April 20, 1974, Mr. Jeong left Korea for Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia to conduct technology and market research regarding currency manufacturing.  Tagging along was the young director in charge of South Korea's coining technology, Min Byung-sun.  After returning from their month-long trip, the two focused on the technical side of coin and currency-production processes, including the production of printing plates for banknotes and master dies for coins.   During his seven years as president of Komsco, Jeong Sae-woong was also committed to giving some of the South Korean Mint's key currency-production staff long term training stints at European schools and with advanced European mints.

Two aspiring Mint technicians, Baek Woon-yeong ( 백운영 ) and Yi In-yong ( 이인용 ), were part of this program.   The two Komsco employees left Korea on October 23, 1973, and spent the next six months studying relief engraving at the Italian medallic arts institute, La Scuola dell'arte della Medaglia and at the Italian State Mint (Zecca di Stato), both in Rome.   Shortly upon their return, these two were to become instrumental in creating the very first Korean-made master dies for a coin.

Komsco chief Jeong Sae-woong also oversaw the construction of an entirely new, up-to-date facility capable of conducting the full range of manufacturing processes required for a world-class mint operating at peak technical capacity. Construction for this new minting facility was completed on July 4, 1975 in Gyeongsan, near the city of Daegu, in the Southeast of the country. Prior to its official completion in July, the new factory had already begun banknote-printing operations in January. The country's coin-manufacturing operations officially transferred from the old Dongnae coin mint (which closed its doors) to the Gyeongsan mint on April 30th that year. With this new facility in place, Komsco aimed for complete self-sufficiency. It was with this objective that the government tasked Komsco with the minting of South Korea's very first locally-made commemorative coins almost as soon as new coin mint came online.

Initial Planning


The image of the Dongnimmun (독립문 in Korean) that appears on the 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won commemorative coin (top right), is a fairly faithful representation of the actual fifteen-meter high stone structure as it stands today in the Seodaemun district of Seoul (bottom right).  Absent from the image on the coin are the two large stone pillars that currently stand on the south side of the arch, remnants of an earlier arch named Yeongeunmun ("Welcoming Gate for Obligation") that once stood at the site (top left).  Built in the early 15th century, the Joseon Dynasty-era Yeongeunmun served as the site for the Korean king's tributary reception of visiting Ming, and later Qing, Chinese delegations that came from Beijing to announce important events, such imperial investitures or successions.  Japan gained control of the Korean peninsula by defeating China in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, after which Japanese troops pulled Yeongeunmun's blue-tiled gable roof off of its supporting stone pillars a year later.

 In November 1897, the Dongnimmun stone-block arch was erected at the site (bottom left), and was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Korean independence activist, Seo Jae-pil (서재필, a.k.a. Philip Jaisohn, the very first Korean to become a naturalized citizen of the United States), designed the new structure and supported its construction with help from other Korean nationalists. Meaning "Independence Arch," Dongnimmun was meant to symbolize Korea's emancipation from Chinese dominion.  Inscribed at the top of the north-facing side of the arch (the direction from which the Chinese delegations arrived) are the Chinese characters for the name of the arch (門立獨 —read right to left), while the south side features the name in Korean hangul script.  On each side of these titles is a Korean taeguk flag carved in stone.

 In a little over a decade after the arch was built, the Japanese would extend their empire over Korea, but the ruling Japanese Governor-Generals allowed Dongnimmun to stand, as it seems that the Japanese knew quite well what was meant by "independence" in the arch's name (Korea's independence from China).  In fact, the arch was even repaired twice under the Japanese, in 1917 and 1928.  In the latter case, the Office of the Governor General itself funded the repairs, at a cost of 4,000 Yen.  The Korean flags carved onto Dongnimmun were the only Korean flags that could be legitimately displayed during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945).  After 1945, the arch became a prominent design on both South Korean stamps and banknotes.

The meaning of Dongnimmun had morphed in the years since its construction, and began to symbolize a general idea of "Korean independence" for many Koreans; so much so, that many believe that the arch was actually built to commemorate the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945.  The inclusion of the arch on the reverse of the commemorative coin made for the 1975 observance of the liberation from Japan certainly reinforces this erroneous idea.

In early 1974 the Bank of Korea made the decision to issue two commemorative coins the following year, one to commemorate Korea's 30th anniversary of Liberation from Japan and the other for the Bank's own 25th anniversary. The Bank was certain that the Komsco team and the new coin-minting facility in Gyeongsan would be well suited to the challenge of making the country's first locally made commemorative coins.

The Bank was not so certain of the public response to "commemorative" coins.

It was an issue of unfamiliarity:  The Bank of Korea had never issued commemorative coins in Korea. Although the Bank had just recently issued South Korea's first commemorative coins in 1970, these gold and silver coins were minted, distributed and sold outside of the country, therefore the vast majority of Koreans were not even aware of their existence. Consequently, officials at the Bank of Korea thought that the very concept of a "commemorative" coin might be lost on the Korean public, thus posing the risk of the possible waste of making coins in which the public would show little interest. The Bank pressed ahead with its plans anyway, and in April 1974 it published the basic premise for issuing these two new coins, which were to be based on findings from researching other countries' commemorative coins. Conducted over the period of a few months, the resulting study featured data collected on 23 different coins from ten different countries that commemorated independence events, and 12 other coins from nine countries that commemorated central bank anniversaries.

In late 1974 and early the following year, Komsco prepared to manufacture the two commemorative coins according to this initial research. The Mint engaged in several experiments involving engraving and test strikes, among other minting processes that were involved in making these larger, unique coins. These preliminary efforts produced two kinds of pattern coins, one featuring the Independence Arch, Dongnimmun ( 독립문 ), that stands in the Seodaemun neighborhood of Seoul, while the other featured the National Assembly building that had recently finished construction that year in Yeouido. The reverse sides of both of these pattern coins included an image of the Seoul-to-Busan four-lane expressway (Gyeongbu Expressway), probably the most well-known infrastructure project of the Park-era in South Korea.

Meanwhile, Komsco's currency design team got to work preparing several designs for the two actual coins in this series, both of which were to be minted and released together. The design team came up with a few idea sketches for the first coin that featured themes from South Korea's signature rural economic development program, the "New Village Movement" known as Saemaul Undong ( 새마을운동 ), but this idea was passed over in favor of a design that better highlighted the upcoming 30th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese control in 1945.
The proposed 25th Anniversary of the Bank of Korea commemorative coin

One of the pattern coins created for the purposes of assessing the feasibility of producing domestically-minted commemorative coins (top) was placed on display at the Bank of Korea Museum in 2017.  This coin was produced in late 1974 ~ early 1975.  This pattern coin displays the Independence Arch and the denomination, "천원" (1,000 Won), with the title "광복30주년" (30th Anniversary of Liberation).   The Gyeongbu Expressway is shown on the reverse.

The 100 Won coin to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Bank of Korea (bottom) was initially intended to be part of the legal tender commemorative issue in 1975, but delays and cost concerns resulted in the cancellation of this coin.  Senior currency designer, Kang Bak ( 강 박 ), designed both sides of this proposed coin, with the Bank of Korea building on the obverse and the Bank of Korea emblem with the denomination numeral on the reverse.
Ministry of Finance officials had already decided that the second coin would commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Bank of Korea. This coin was to feature an image of the granite façade of the Tuscan and French chateau-inspired Bank of Korea building. The building itself was constructed in 1912 and designed by renowned Japanese architect, Kingo Tatsuno, who had also designed the nearby Seoul railway station, in addition to the original Tokyo Station and Bank of Japan buildings, both in Tokyo.

By January 1975, the currency design team had created around twenty idea sketches for these two commemorative coins, with some retention of the design themes from the pattern coins. The new design sketches for the 30th anniversary of liberation commemorative coin featured the unofficial national flower (the Korean variety of the hibiscus, the mugunghwa) and the Independence Arch on the coin's obverse. The reverse designs included a female figure in Korean traditional dress with a Korean flag —a clear reference to women independence activists who were involved in the nationwide March 1, 1919 independence movement against the Japanese colonial rule of Korea. The inclusion of this image in the designs appears to be a nod to independence heroine, Yu Kwon-soon, arguably the most famous of the 1919 Independence Movement demonstrators. To execute the sketches for the obverse design, Komsco brought in currency designer Jo Byung-soo, who at the time was working for the Bank of Korea's banknote-design team, while fellow designer Oh Dong-hwan drew the sketches for the reverse design. Komsco's senior currency designer Kang Bak created the design sketches for the Bank of Korea commemorative coin. This coin was to feature a frontal view of the Bank of Korea building on its obverse, while the reverse was to include the Bank of Korea emblem and the denomination numerals.

After this period of production tests and design was completed, the country's Ministry of Finance granted provisional authorization to the governor of the Bank of Korea on February 10, 1975 allowing the Bank to proceed with the minting and release of the coins according to the specifications outlined in the Bank's initial application for approval.

Initial Application Specifications for Both Commemorative Coins in 1975

As it turned out, the application review process at the Ministry of Finance was fraught with worries over the introduction of one million of the larger-denomination 30th Anniversary of Liberation coins into the country's currency system at a time when inflation was a concern. There was some apprehension about public perceptions of currency devaluation caused by the introduction of these new 500-Won coins, particularly if people were to start using the commemoratives as circulation currency. Additional thought was given to the potential risk of wasting money on the development of these new coins only to have them withdrawn soon after in a currency reform (as had happened just two years after the Bank of Korea released its first circulation coins in 1959). Since South Korea had been undergoing currency conversions about every ten years since 1945, the conventional wisdom was that the country might be due for yet another currency reform since the last one took place thirteen years before. The country's economic jitters in 1975 certainly fueled this fear.

The Commemorative Project Gets Sidetracked

While the Ministry of Finance deliberated on the proposal, a complication developed at Komsco that threatened to delay, if not completely derail, this entire commemorative coin project. Interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with developments at the new coin minting facility, nor any issues at all associated with the coins themselves. The problem had its origins in a tragedy that took place during the previous year's Liberation Day celebrations.


The August 15, 1974 assassination attempt on Park Chung-hee resulted in the deaths of both the First Lady, Yook Young-soo, and a high school student sitting in the audience named Jang Bong-hwa.   The assassin was an ethnic Korean resident of Japan named Mun Se-gwang (Japanese name: Nanjō Seikō).  Mun stole a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver from a Japanese police officer in Osaka the month before and flew to Korea to kill president Park as he gave his speech for the Liberation Day holiday.  Recent analysis of footage taken during the August 15, 1974 assassination attempt (top) puts into question the allegation that Mun shot the First Lady.  This video purports to show that the bullet that struck the First Lady had actually come from the pistol of Pak Jong-gyu, the head of the Presidential Security Service (PSS).  The makers of this video rather convincingly suggest that although he bravely rushed toward the shooter while everyone else was ran for cover, Pak lost control of his pistol as he pulled it out of his waistband, and (they allege) the weapon discharged with its barrel pointing rearward toward the First Lady as it fell between his legs, then landed on the stage.  However, the official investigation into this incident claims that this stray bullet from Pak's gun "most likely" flew into the audience and killed the high school girl, while claiming that it was Mun who fired the round that killed the president's wife.

This pattern coin (bottom) was the result of the Korean Mint's brief consideration of a "memorial coin" for the late First Lady, Yook Young-soo.  This piece features her right-facing bust, with the legends, "육영수 여사" (Madame Yook Young-soo) and "대통령 영부인" (Presidential First Lady).  Two surviving pieces were placed on display at the Bank of Korea Museum building in 2017 along with the Independence Arch pattern coins, but the display case in which these patterns are housed only includes limited information about them.  As the manufacture of this pattern coin was to be a test of the Korean Mint's ability to create silver proofs, it is very likely that the two Madame Yook pattern coins on display are of silver composition.

The Liberation Day Tragedy

On August 15, 1974, during a morning ceremony marking the 29th Anniversary of Liberation from Japan, President Park Chung-hee, his wife First Lady Yook Young-soo, and some government dignitaries were on stage at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul, during which the president delivered a speech. As Park droned on behind a podium microphone, an ethnic Korean resident from Japan named Mun Se-gwang, a supposed North Korean sympathizer, ran down a theater aisle toward the stage, firing four rounds from a .38 caliber revolver at the president. The presidential security detail sprang to life and returned fire. Although president Park was uninjured in the melee, a bullet struck the first lady in the head. She died later that evening in hospital. The death of his wife was not just a personal tragedy for Park and his family, but was also a blow to his government. The universally popular first lady had been one of the few bright spots associated with a national leadership that otherwise gave off an aura of banality, if not a certain grim rigidity. The death of the first lady on Liberation Day 1974 also cast a pall on the preparations for the following year's landmark celebration of the holiday, since many would remember the day as the first anniversary of her passing; an important and somber occasion in Korean tradition.

One person who certainly kept in mind the anniversary of the First Lady's passing was Komsco President Jeong Sae-woong. Evidently, the president of the South Korean Mint thought that a numismatic commemoration of the First Lady's death held priority over a commemoration of the Liberation Day anniversary. Using the weight of his position as president of the Mint, Mr. Jeong unilaterally decided to ignore the entire proposal outlined in the Bank of Korea's initial application, and essentially counter-proposed a single silver proof coin to commemorate the one year anniversary of the First Lady's death. His proposed "memorial coin" was to feature her portrait. The minting of such a coin was an ambitious idea, as the domestic production of silver proof coins would be a first for Komsco. Rumor had it that Mr. Jeong even tried to get several key officials in the government to back his proposal over any objections from his immediate superiors. Such defiant behavior by the head of the Korean Mint is certainly not the norm in South Korea today, and it ran counter to the duties and prerogatives vested in his position as president of the Mint. In any case, his connections with the military men running the government gave Mr. Jeong a wide latitude of action in his position, which he used positively to improve the capabilities of the Mint, but it also undoubtedly allowed him to give little regard to the authority of the mere civil servants who held positions above him at the Bank of Korea.

Regardless of whether Mr. Jeong's desire to commemorate the First Lady's death stemmed from a sincere admiration of the deceased or whether it was an effort to gain favor from the president, officials from the Bank of Korea perceived the need to be cautious in their response to this challenge. They felt enormous pressure to consider the Mint president's proposal just for fact that the subject of the proposed coin design was President Park's wife. Nevertheless, she did not have any serious accomplishments during her tenure, and Bank officials felt that the public might not be receptive to the idea that the late-First Lady was deserving of being honored on the country's first domestically produced commemorative coin.

Further complicating matters was the fact that Bank officials initially thought that if the proposal were to actually be adopted, it might be necessary to contract with an overseas mint due to the Komsco's lack of experience with manufacturing silver proofs. This change in plans would negate the entire "domestic production" theme that the Mint had been working toward. However, officials eventually decided that Komsco should first attempt to locally manufacture a prototype of this silver proof coin. With the evidence of this finished product in hand, and if feasibility studies for domestic production proved positive, the Bank would then suggest that Komsco attempt to manufacture the coins on its own.

As it turned out, the Mint president's beloved silver coin meant to memorialize the First Lady never saw the light of day: President Park's reaction was reportedly less than enthusiastic when he got wind of the proposal, giving it the kiss of death. At the time of its rejection, it seemed the only thing that this "memorial coin episode" had accomplished was to delay the Ministry of Finance's final approval for the commemorative coin proposal by two months. Despite the delay, the idea of producing a silver proof seemed to have actually resonated with some of the key people in charge, and the idea was soon put to the test.

Final Adjustments

When the Ministry gave their final blessing to the commemorative coin project on April 11,1975, it became clear that the two-month delay had also given them time to reassess and revise the entire proposal, which had originally envisioned two nickel-composition coins: A 500 Won coin for the 30th anniversary of Liberation, and a 100 Won coin for the 25th anniversary of the Bank of Korea. This time, the Ministry of Finance amended the original proposal, restricting the project to the minting of a single coin commemorating the 30th anniversary of Liberation. The Ministry also stipulated that the denomination of this coin be reduced from 500 to 100 Won, and that it be struck on cheaper copper-nickel planchets so that the production costs already budgeted for the project (₩500 million KRW) would allow for a four-fold increase in the number of pieces to be minted for this single coin. Most of the design features and other specifications for the coin were left to the discretion of the Bank of Korea.

Initial Application Specifications for Both Commemorative Coins in 1975

The production of this commemorative issue was to be special for South Korea in important ways. The Bank of Korea and Komsco set out to achieve the goal of having the new 100 Won commemorative be the first South Korean coin to utilize domestic production at every stage of the minting process. The two previous coins that Komsco had produced (the 100 Won in 1970 [KM-9], and the 50 Won in 1972 [KM-20]) were designed and minted in Korea, but the key step of manufacturing the master dies had been subcontracted to the Osaka Mint in Japan. Therefore, the final step for South Korea to achieve a completely independent coin minting process was for Komsco to produce its own master dies. The Mint met this goal during the production of the 30th Anniversary of Liberation commemorative coin. To highlight this achievement, the country's Monetary Administration Committee proposed that the release of the new commemorative coin coincide with a new 1,000 Won banknote (P-44) that was also Komsco's very first banknote to be completely designed and printed in Korea.

The works of sculptors Kim Chan-sik ( 김찬식 ) and Kim Gyeong-seung ( 김경승 )

Komsco currency designer Oh Dong-hwan ( 오동환 ) was assigned the job of sketching the "female independence figure" for the 30th Anniversary of Liberation commemorative coin (bottom left).   Once his design was approved, the Mint asked sculptor Kim Chan-sik ( 김찬식, top left) to engrave Mr. Oh's design onto the initial plaster model in bas-relief.  The Mint used the resulting engraving to create the master dies for the coin —this being the first time the entire process was accomplished in Korea without outside help.

The female independence figure on this commemorative coin is a strikingly similar representation, if not a very faithful copy, of a bas-relief sculpture that stands in the historic Pagoda Park ( Tapgol Park, or 탑골공원 ) in the Jongno neighborhood of Seoul (bottom right).  Sculptor Kim Gyeong-seung ( 김경승, top right ) created this, and nine other large bas-relief panels, now spaced along the northeast wall of Pagoda park.  It was at the pavilion in Pagoda Park on March 1, 1919 that Korean independence demonstrators read the Korean Declaration of Independence publicly.  This action, and the extreme severity of the Japanese reaction to it, soon set off nationwide demonstrations protesting Japanese colonial rule.  The bas-relief panels at Pagoda Park show an episode in the independence struggle from each province of Korea.  This particular image is a detail of Panel Number 7 (the seventh one from the right) which depicts a scene in Chungcheong Province and features Yu Kwon-soon, the "Korean Jeanne d'Arc."

Both Kim Chan-sik (top left) and Kim Gyeong-seung (top right) were prominent artists of their time, and often worked for the Korean government in the Park era as contract sculptors who created many of the heroic, nationalist statues for president Park's "monuments building campaign."  Kim Gyeong-seung's work includes the statue of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur that overlooks Incheon Harbor, and one of the Rightist politician, Kim Gu.  Kim Chan-sik created similar heroic statuary, but was also a practitioner of "anti-formal abstractionist" sculpture, and was known for his abstract works that were evocative of the human form.
On May 1, 1975 the Korean government approved the revised proposal to mint this single 100 Won commemorative coin, and release it alongside the new 1,000 Won banknote, with both to be issued the day before the Liberation Day holiday of August 15th. With the design of the new coin finalized, the South Korean Mint focused its attention to the engraving work to be done for the female independence figure, the coin's prominent design feature.   The Mint decided to request the engraving services of Professor Kim Chan-sik of Hongik University in Seoul.   Hiring Professor Kim as the chief engraver for the coin was an obvious indication of a choice born out of the Mint's exigent lack of qualified personnel, since although Kim Chan-sik was a notable in the Korean sculptural arts at the time, he was not trained in the specialized engraving skill needed for making device punches for coins.   Plaster relief engraving for coins and medals requires a completely different technique from general relief engraving due to the need to create dies with relief features that can withstand intense pressures without shattering.   In the mid-1970s, Komsco struggled to acquire such trained engravers who could produce these plaster relief engravings for coins.   Having relief engravers on staff was a key component of the Mint's ability to produce numerous coining dies that could create substantially identical coins.

As Professor Kim worked on the plaster relief engravings, Baek Woon-yeong and Yi In-yong returned to Korea from Italy on April 28, 1974 after finishing six months of their own training in medallic relief engraving and techniques in using reduction lathes.   Working feverishly in the coin engraving room at Komsco's Busan Mint, the two men experimented with a freshly-imported Janvier reducing lathe and various galvano plates in trial-and-error attempts to teach themselves how to manufacture a master hub.   Using the knowledge he gained from his trip to the European mints the year before, Komsco president Jeong Sae-woong took it upon himself to travel back and forth between Professor Kim in Seoul and the Mint in Busan to explain to the men working on the project the exact criteria for executing the plaster engraving.   Kim Chan-sik completed his plaster relief engraving of the female independence figure by May 26, 1975, and the Mint was quite pleased with the results of Mr. Kim's superior rendering.   In the coin-engraving workroom in Busan, after finishing trial-and-error "self-training" in operating the reduction lathe, Baek Woon-yeong finally completed the cutting of the master dies after an heroic day-and-night effort to produce the finished piece.

With this important step completed, minting operations for the new coins began in earnest in late May 1975 at Komsco's new coin mint in Gyeongsan. It was during these minting operations in the summer of 1975 that Komsco applied much more rigorous quality control measures during the striking and inspection of these 100 Won commemoratives than any of its previous series of coins. With its fully-independent operations going well, along with good results obtained from several experiments in making trial proof coins, the Bank of Korea placed an official order for 2,000 pieces to be struck as frosted proofs, out of the total mintage of five million coins. This was Komsco's first attempt at minting proof coins in quantity, and was a key test of the Mint's skill and precision with such work.   However, problems occurred when producing the 2,000 frosted proofs ordered by the Bank of Korea.   The material was cupro-nickel, not silver.   Director of coin production, Min-Byung-sun, who was unfamiliar with the technology involving their minting, worked through the problems and in the end discovered the best approach to create frosted proof surfaces on the cupronickel planchets.   Still, when the proofs came off the coining presses, reactions were mixed. Some at the Mint were not pleased with the resulting strikes, and complained that the proofs they had produced were not up to par. They felt that the poor metal quality of the low-cost cupronickel planchets that the Mint had supplied for these proof strikes (at a cost of ₩45.47 KRW per unit) was to blame for the less-than-optimal results.   Despite the difficulties, Min Byung-sun presented a specimen proof to Komsco president Jeong Sae-woong. Min remembers, "I showed the prototype to the boss, who examined it for a while until a smile spread across his face and said, 'All the troubles in the meantime, like snow, disappear.' "

These proof coins, the very first ever minted in South Korea, were evidence of the impressive advances the Mint had made in a rather short period of time.

The Popularity of the Commemoratives

The Bank of Korea first announced the release of the 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won commemorative coins in the August 13 ~ 14, 1975 issues of the Seoul daily newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo. The initial release of the coins took place at local financial institutions with the coins issued to customers on a first-come, first-served basis. It so happened that the Bank's earlier concerns about the Korean public's potential reactions to the release of a "commemorative" coin had been confirmed: Most citizens showed scant interest in the coins during the initial distribution, despite the publicity. Issuing banks saw very little demand from customers wishing to get their hands on the new coins, with the result that by the end of the year, the Bank of Korea still had significant amounts of them residing in its vaults.

It was also true that when they did get their hands on them, many Koreans apparently did not see the distinction between the new commemorative coin and circulation coins. There was occasional use of the commemoratives in cash transactions, such as payment for bus fares. The ongoing shortage of larger-denomination coins in the South Korean currency system most likely encouraged this behavior. Although the largest-denomination coin circulating at that time had been released in 1970 (the 100 Won coin featuring Admiral Yi Soon-shin [KM-9]), the large-scale nationwide distribution of this coin had only begun the year before, in 1974. Therefore, the convenience of the new commemoratives' 100-Won value was likely the reason that some people initially utilized the coins as money rather than as collectibles.

As with most of the subsequent commemorative coins that South Korea issued in the 1970s and 1980s, significant numbers of these 100 Won coins remained in storage for years. The result is that many uncirculated examples can be found today, and are a common sight in the coin-collecting market. The Korean-coin catalogue published by Dae Gwang-sa goes so far as to (grossly) exaggerate the ubiquity of these coins by stating that any given household in South Korea probably possesses one or two. Although the average condition of the extant examples of these coins is quite high, third party grading companies have graded only a handful of pieces at Mint State 66 or higher. Not surprisingly, the proof versions of the coin (mintage: 2,000) have commanded much higher realized prices in the collector market. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) has graded at least one of these coins at Proof-69 (Ultra Cameo).
The 1,000 Won banknote issued in 1975, the regular-strike version of the 100 Won commemorative, and the proof version of the same coin, and  how it appears in its mint plastic-case packaging and green cardboard slipcover.

The 100 Won commemorative coin that the Bank of Korea released in 1975 was issued concurrently with a new 1,000 Won banknote (left).  The regular-strike version of the commemorative coin numbered 4,980,000 (center left), while only 2,000 proof versions of the coin were made (center right).   These proof coins were packaged in plastic mint cases and sold to collectors wrapped in green cardboard slipcovers (right).  The proof versions are exceedingly difficult to find in today's collector market.

The Bank of Korea 25th Anniversary silver proof medal (1975).

The silver proof medal to commemorate the Bank of Korea's 25th Anniversary is composed of 99% silver and has a diameter of 40 millimeters.  The author of this article is unaware of the number of pieces that Komsco made of this medal, as the literature that has been written on this, and practically every other South Korean numismatic piece is sparse, at best.  Recent (2011 ~ 2014) sale prices for this commemorative medal at a popular online Korean currency retailer hovered at a surprisingly low ₩215,000 KRW ($215.00 USD).

South Korea's First Silver Proof Medal

The decision to mint only one coin for the commemorative project in 1975 meant that Komsco had to abandon the coin to commemorate the Bank of Korea's 25th Anniversary in the middle of the preparations for its minting. Concerns over costs evidently had an effect on the Finance Ministry's eventual decision to discard the Bank of Korea commemorative as a legal tender coin to be minted in the millions. Nonetheless, the Ministry allowed Komsco to proceed with the manufacture of an alternative commemorative piece for the Bank of Korea's anniversary on June 12, 1975. The result was an amazingly well rendered silver proof medal that highlighted the Mint's newfound capabilities. Designed by Kang Bak and Jo Byung-soo, this 40mm-diameter sterling silver medal featured Kang Bak's design of the Bank of Korea building on the obverse. The medal's reverse side featured a relief design of the Asian double-phoenix (the bong hwang), and was a uniquely ornate design for South Korean numismatics of the time. Korean coin and medal collectors prize this piece due to its elaborate reverse design, in addition to it being the earliest of South Korea's proof medals.

Park Chung-hee:   The "Pint-Sized Stalin"?

A Second World War Soviet victory medal featuring Josef Stalin (left), and a presidential medal featuring Park Chung-hee (right) commemorating the Republic of Korea's eighth presidential inauguration in December 1972

A Second World War Soviet victory medal featuring Josef Stalin (left), and a presidential medal featuring Park Chung-hee (right) commemorating the Republic of Korea's eighth presidential inauguration in December 1972, two months after the adoption of the Yushin Constitution.

Obvious comparisons can be made between Josef Stalin's system of rule and that of Park Chung-hee's Yushin Order.   Dig a little deeper, and one will realize that the comparisons to Stalin can really only go so far.   The big distinctions should be clear, and one of the most important was that Park never did nationalize industry.   The Korean president and his advisors were far too enamored with the Japanese model and the postwar "miracle" economy of West Germany; they had learned enough from these examples to know that any effective economic theory made use of the skills of the entrepreneur.   In any case, even by Stalin's time there were no serious economic theorists in the world who thought that a command economy could exist without a major provision for private enterprise.

The core distinction is that Park's rule never reached the level of control over business and society that would have made him as widely feared as Stalin, although horrible were Park's methods and earnest were the attempts.   It was Stalin who came closest to proving that a state could plan every detail of an economy only at the cost of terrorizing a large portion of the population who might have hoped to benefit from it.   Park's regime was just a bit more restrained than to take things as far as the Soviets had.   Even when comparing the Yushin Order to similar right-wing autocratic regimes of the time —say for example, Augusto Pinochet's Chile— an exact analogy falls short.   Pinochet "disappeared" 119 dissidents in 1975 alone, and eventually murdered well over 2,000 by the time he was done.   Park's autocracy never approached that level of depravity.   Instead, he mostly relied on a system of ordinances, and administrative and surveillance measures to keep a lid on all dissident activity and popular movements, justifying his repression by law wherever possible.   The Yushin Order incentivized dissidents to lie still and say nothing.   Under Stalin, boisterous praise of the regime would have been the only survivable posture.

Although he would never allow democratization to interfere with his grand economic plans, the South Korean president attempted to keep up the minimum appearances of a constitutional, representative government.   There may be reasons for this:  It cannot be forgotten that South Korea received great benefit from its position in the Cold War, not to mention being connected to the world market system, in which it took particular advantage of opportunities open to it in Asia and North America.   If Park Chung-hee had really been another Stalin, it is unlikely in the extreme that the government and businesses of Japan, for example, would have continued to provide South Korea with economic assistance, which by the end of 1982 had totaled $4.4 billion USD, as well as to provide the Koreans with the second most important market for the sale of their products.

And no matter how convincing the arguments, one should be very careful in using comparisons to Stalin to explain away the success of the Park-era economy.   Despite the valid descriptions of a ruthless, antidemocratic "success at all costs" business approach, the real achievements of Park's model came mainly from Korean businesses' fundamental competitiveness in world markets, due largely to a commitment to an "engineering approach," as established under the guidance of Park's technocrats.   And then there was the hard work, long hours, and low pay of the nation's workers.

In other words, South Korean businesses just got good at outcompeting their rivals.

And then there is the Stalinist tendency of a leader to conflate his identity with that of the nation.   Park is indeed guilty of this charge.   His personal security chief was known to opine, "His Excellency IS the nation!" (in Korean, "각하가 곧 국가다!") —A declaration His Excellency felt no need to correct.   This ego-trip was driven by Park's sense of mission and dedication to the nation, which unsurprisingly made him feel justifiably self-righteous, particularly in the face of the inevitable opposition to the Yushin Order.

Autocratic leaders like Park, who see themselves as "men of destiny," often seem to have the virtue of never giving up until their dreams come true;  but when the dreams do, the virtue tends to be offset by what happens next.   The world never really got to find out what would have happened next for South Korea under Park.   An assassin's bullet intervened.   It is probably the case that if he had lived into the 1980s the consensus of opinion would have judged the Man of Destiny much more harshly than if he had not died in 1979.   And identifying himself with the nation would have been ridiculous if it had been made only by the man and a few of his friends, but a good number of his countrymen thought the same, and many still do.   So while he may not have ended up as a "pint-sized Stalin," it is probably lucky for Park Chung-hee's legacy that we did not get to find out what his eventual response might have been to the growing opposition to his rule if he had lived.

It would have been a tragedy if he had made a move that might have made Uncle Joe proud.


English-Language Text Sources:

    2012 Standard Catalog of World Coins: 1901-2000,  39th Edition.
    Ed:  Cuhaj, George S.   Iola, WI:  Krause Publications.

    Korea's Development Under Park Chung-hee: Rapid industrialization, 1961-79.
    Kim, Hyung-a.   London and New York:  RoutledgeCurzon, 2012.

    South Korea 1975: A Permanent Emergency.
    Oh, John K. C.   Asian Survey 16, No. 1 (1976): 41. 89

    Developmental dictatorship and the Park Chung-hee era : the shaping of modernity in the Republic of Korea.
    Yi, Pyŏng-ch'ŏn   Paramus, N.J. :   Homa & Sekey Books, 2006.

English-Language Internet Sources:

    Numismatic Guarantee Corporation.   NGC World Coin Census:  Korea and South Korea Coin Pop Report -100 Won.   13 Apr. 2015.

    Korean-language sources:

      Daehan minkook hwapae gagyeok dorok
      [Republic of Korean Coins and Banknotes Catalogue].
      Seoul:  Daegwangsa, 2013.

      Oh, Soon-hwan,
      "Oh Soon-hwan's Currency Stories (no. 89) Korea's First Commemorative Coin" [오순환의 화폐 이야기 (89) 한국최초기념주화]
      Web blog post. Hwadong Yang-haeng [화동양행], 20 May 2016. 30 June 2018.

      (Jo Byung-soo eui ton eeyagi) Urinara kinyeom joohwa
      [(Jo Byung-soo's Story of Money) Korean Commemorative Coins].
      Jo, Byung-soo. Seoul:  O-Sung K&C, 2006.

      Hankook hwapae gagyeok dorok
      [Korean Coins and Banknotes Catalogue].
      Seoul:  Geumhwasa, 1984.

    Article by Mark Lovmo (2015)