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South Korea: The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative Coin, Pt. 1

광복 30주년 기념 백원

By Mark….

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 first commemorative to be made in that country, and it was introduced as a numismatic salute to the nation’s 30th 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

South Korea, 1975: 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won commemorative coinOf 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 10 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.

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 governed 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.

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.

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 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.

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 ’70s, 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.

It was around this time that the government had decided to construct 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 30 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 first locally-made commemorative coins almost as soon as the new coin mint came online.

Initial Planning

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 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 10 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 unique, larger coins. 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. No surviving examples of these pattern coins are known to still exist.

The 100 Won coin to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Bank of KoreaMeanwhile, 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 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.

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 20 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.

specs for initial 100 won commemorative application, South Korea

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 circulating 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 10 years since 1945, the conventional wisdom was that the country might be due for yet another currency reform since the last one took place 13 years before. The country’s economic jitters in 1975 certainly fueled this fear.

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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