The Faces of South Korea

Posted on 11/14/2018

South Korean notes commemorate historical figures who made long-lasting contributions to art, science and politics.

Shortly after the formation of South Korea and North Korea, the new countries fought a war that lasted from 1950 until 1953. The Republic of Korea went on to represent its past with banknotes displaying artists, scholars, and prominent leaders.

Confucianism is a school of thought that was developed in the region and is a way of life that promotes family, self and an underlying message that all people are good. A well-known scholar of Confucianism was Yulgok Yi, also known as Yi I. In his life, he wrote works on Confucianism, politics and learning.

Yi I went on to hold many positions in politics—bringing a Confucian perspective to his role in government. His combination of government and Confucian teachings is undoubtedly why he is displayed on multiple South Korean notes.

Another figure, Shin Saimdang created works of art, poetry and promoted Confucianism in the 1500s. While her art and poetry is held in high regard today, she is better remembered for being the mother of Yi I. Shin taught Confucianism to Yi I, who went on to be one of the most prominent Confucian scholars from Korea.

Some people believe Shin Saimdang should be remembered more for her art and poetry and less for being the mother of a prominent figure. The Republic of Korea is trying to promote equality and possibly this message by displaying her along with her art on the obverse of the 50,000 won note.

ND (2009) South Korea 50,000 Won (Pick #57)
PMG graded Superb Gem Unc 69 EPQ ★
Click image to enlarge.

Political leader King Sejong the Great reigned from 1418-1450 AD in Korea and accomplished quite a bit during his reign. The king changed the way the government operated by having leaders from different social classes voice the concerns of the people.

King Sejong was instrumental in developing the Korean writing system because he wanted all people to know how to read and write. The main writing at the time was Chinese—a very complicated language taught only to the higher class. Sejong created a new alphabet called Hangul which was far less complicated than Chinese and subsequently taught to everyone. This practice was unheard of, as education was generally reserved for the higher classes.

Sejong went on to promote science and agriculture during his reign. The back of the 10,000 won note below shows the Korean Celestial Globe. Created by Jang Yeong-Sil, the globe was made at the request of Sejong to help with astronomy.

ND (2007) South Korea 10,000 Won (Pick #56)
PMG graded Superb Gem Unc 68 EPQ
Click images to enlarge.

The king had seen promise in Jang and his inventions regardless of the latter’s low economic status. Sejong didn’t care about a Jang’s standing and made it a point to promote him to a government official so he could create inventions with ease.

Korea’s origin is said to date to 2333 BC, and the culture has undoubtedly influenced society. The notes in circulation not only continue to honor the past but also encourage future generations to pursue art, equality, religion and science.

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