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South Korea: The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative Coin, Pt. 2


광복 30주년 기념 백원

By Mark Lovmodokdo-research.com/koreancoins.html….

From the Introduction to Part 1:

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.

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, the 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.

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 the president of Komsco in 1975, Jeong Sae-yeong. Evidently, the president of the 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 was certainly not the norm in South Korea, and it ran counter to the duties and prerogatives vested in his position as president of the Mint. However, this particular mint president was an outside appointee from the Korean government who rode in on the coattails of the 1961 military coup d’état that put Major General (now President) Park in power. As a “connected man,” Mr. Jeong undoubtedly gave 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 simply because 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 Komsco’s lack of experience 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.

changes made to 100 won commemorative application, South Korea

With the new plan in place, minting operations for the new coins began in earnest in May 1975 at Komsco’s new coin mint in Gyeongsan.

The production of this commemorative issue was to be unique 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.

Designers of South Korea 1975 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 won
Komsco currency designer Oh Dong-hwan ( 오동환 ) sketched 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 is similar to a sculpture in historic Pagoda Park ( Tapgol Park, or 탑골공원 ) in Seoul (bottom right). Sculptor Kim Gyeong-seung ( 김경승, top right ) created this and nine other large 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 Japanese reaction to it, 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 at their time, and often worked for the Korean government in the Park era, creating 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 known for his abstract works.

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 15. With the design of the new coin finalized, Mint technicians then focused their 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 Hongik University professor Kim Chan-sik, a notable figure in the Korean sculptural arts at the time. Mr. Kim completed a plaster relief engraving of the figure by May 26, and the Mint was quite pleased with the results of Mr. Kim’s superior rendering. Upon completion of this engraving, operations began on the production of the master and working dies.

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. When the finished products came off the coin presses however, 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. Still, 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 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.

South Korean money circa 1975
The 100 Won commemorative coin 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 Proofs were made (center right). The Proof coins were packaged in plastic mint cases and sold to collectors wrapped in green cardboard slipcovers (right). The Proofs are exceedingly difficult to find in today’s collector market.

As with most of the subsequent commemorative coins that South Korea issued in the 1970s and ’80s, 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).

South Korea’s First Silver Proof Medal

South Korean bank medal 1975
Silver proof medal commemorating the Bank of Korea’s 25th Anniversary, composed of 99% silver with a diameter of 40 mm. The author of this article is unaware of the number of pieces made (South Korean numismatic literature is sparse, at best).

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”?

Stalin Park Chung-hee
A WW2 Soviet victory medal featuring Josef Stalin (left), and a presidential medal featuring Park Chung-hee (right) commemorating his 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 nationalized 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 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–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.

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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