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)
The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative coin (1975)
The 42nd World Shooting Championships Commemorative Coins (1978)
Circulation Coins of the Republic of Korea
South Korean Pattern Coins (1965-1966)
Bank of Korea Mint Sets

South Korean Coin Database

The Fifth Republic Commemorative coins

South Korea's first commemorative coins of the 1980s were issued in 1981 to celebrate the establishment of Chun Do-hwan’s “Fifth Republic” (1981-1987).  The Krause Publications' Standard Catalog of World Coins erroneously names the subject of these commemoratives as the "1st Anniversary of the 5th Republic". The Korean title of the coins is 대한민국 제5공화국 출범 기념주화.  The Korean title reveals that these coins were meant to commemorate the inauguration of the Fifth Republic, not its "first anniversary."

The Republic of Korea “Fifth Republic” Commemorative Coins (1981)

The Fifth Republic Commemorative coins (대한민국 제5공화국 출범 기념주화) were introduced at the end of the most controversial transition period in South Korean political leadership in recent times.   The designs of the coins, and the timing of these commemorative coins´ release, were meant to conjure an atmosphere of harmony among the public in the wake of a brutal government crackdown on dissent.   The government also issued the coins as a way to entice the people of the country to save for the future, and to help take their minds off of recent 'political developments' that had begun the Republic of Korea´s grimmest half-decade since the end of the Korean War.  

The New Man in Charge

When Park Chung-hee´s seventeen-year tenure as president of the Republic of Korea came to an end with his assassination in October 1979, many in Korea hoped for political liberalization that would result in the replacement of the Fourth Republic´s draconian "Yushin" Constitution and, particlularly, make possible the institution of direct elections for president.   Instead, what they got was yet another strongman from the Korean Army with an overweening lust to ‘wear the purple’.   He was a sharp, fifty year-old general on the rise – a wily, ambition-crazed monster sitting at the apex of the powerful Korean military-intelligence apparatus at the time of Park´s death, and a man historians have charitably characterized as either " stubborn and notably insensitive," or "taciturn and unloved".

Chun Do-hwan

Major General Chun Doo-hwan was commander of the Defense Security Command (DSC; in Korean: 보안사령부), the organization within the Korean military charged with internal security, preservation of regime loyalty, and the deterrence and investigation of subversion. The DSC accomplished this with an intelligence security net throughout the military by means of a commissar system, with DSC spies placed as low as the battalion level. In such a position, Chun was well placed to take advantage of the assassination of President Park and the resulting weak civilian interim president, Choi Kyu-ha. This he did, making himself the fifth person to become president of South Korea. Quite pleased with himself, Chun issued medals to commemorate his presidency (right). The medals show Chun in heroic, almost Mussolini-esque, profile. Other medals included his wife, who was another wily operator working behind the scenes in helping the Chun family amass a fortune. As with President Park, Chun’s underlings addressed him as “Your Excellency” (각하 in Korean), as evidenced in the wording of the medal at the top: “H.E. [His Excellency] CHUN DOO HWAN”. Also note the double-phoenix symbol, representative of royal authority, and symbol of the South Korean president. The phoenix was also chosen for the obverse design of the Fifth Republic 1,000 Won commemorative coin.

By exploiting the power vacuum that resulted from Park Chung-hee´s death, (not to mention a feeble civilian control over the military) Major General Chun Doo-hwan staged a rolling coup d’état from December 1979 to September 1980.   His nine-month march to the throne was an unadulterated aggrandizement of power as he seized upon several key opportunities on the way, with the help of his friends in the Army.   In the role of head investigator of Park´s assassination, Chun arrested the Army Chief of Staff and took over the Korean Army headquarters in one evening (December 12, 1979).   He soon got himself promoted to Lieutenant General, and in the following April, contrived to have the weak interim president appoint him acting director of the principal agency for monitoring domestic politics (the KCIA) that, incidentally, possessed virtually unlimited and completely unchecked power to arrest and detain any person on any charge.   It was this last move that the US Ambassador considered to be “by far the most important reason that tensions escalated, erupting four weeks later in mid-May [1980].”

Using as an excuse the threat posed by the mass demonstrations against his growing control of government functions, Chun essentially completed his takeover by following the playbook of the typical banana-republic coup d’état:   In one evening (May 17, 1980), he declared martial law, closed the universities, dissolved the legislature, took over the broadcasting stations, banned all political activity, and arrested thousands of people who voiced opposition to his actions.   The result was the country´s largest anti-government rebellion since the end of the Korean War, the suppression of which forever left a black mark on Chun Doo-hwan´s later tenure as president.

The First Commemorative Coins of the 1980s

The 30th Anniversary of the Republic of Korea commemorative coin designs

These coin designs were originally sketched in 1978 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea. However, the Korean government took a pass on minting these coins in favor of coins commemorating the 42nd World Shooting Championships taking place the same year in Seoul. They felt that commemorating the shooting competition was more important due to the involvement of many other countries, and the better international exposure it would garner for Korea.

In the months after his May 1980 crackdown, Chun Doo-hwan busied himself with the formalities:   He made himself interim president on September 1, 1980, and finished the job with a very carefully controlled indirect presidential election the following February and a new constitution that inaugurated the "Fifth Republic" on March 3, 1981.   Soon after Chun became interim president, preliminary discussions began between the Bank of Korea and the Ministry of Finance about designing and issuing new commemorative coins marking the launch of the new government.   Finance officials expressed some initial disapproval to the idea, questioning the Bank´s frequency of issuing commemoratives in recent years.   Despite this, Bank officials quickly agreed to begin a study on the designs, denominations, and distribution of some new commemoratives.  

The work on the coins´ designs began on September 12, 1980, with veteran currency designer and Art Director at the Bank of Korea, Jo Byung-soo orchestrating the efforts of the Korean Mint´s design team.   There soon emerged a few favored design subjects on Korean themes that were considered appropriate for the commemoration of a new era.   In this regard, the design team reviewed a series of thirty sketches that were drawn up in 1978 for the commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the Republic that they thought would be similarly appropriate.   Upon initial examination of these drawings however, the President of the Bank of Korea, Kim Joon-seong, instructed the team to come up with newer, more novel ideas for the designs.   At the same time, the Bank of Korea even tasked a few of its staff to conduct surveys of people from different walks of life in order to gauge any recurring or notable imagery that common people might suggest for the new commemorative coins.   Perhaps as an indication of the level of interest in the new government, the surveys proved fruitless, and the design team eventually narrowed down the basic design ideas on their own.  

The resulting sketches that the team created included images of the Korean national flower, the Mugunghwa (a variety of the Rose of Sharon), a composite image of ten animals and natural scenes traditionally associated with longevity, and images of the phoenix and the crane that are traditionally suggestive of festivities and new beginnings.  
Preliminary designs for the Fifth Republic commemorative coins

These were the initial design sketches for the Fifth Republic commemoratives.   Note the carryover of some of the same design features from the earlier studies done on the 30th Anniversary of the Republic commemoratives (above). A 50,000 Won denomination was also contemplated at this early stage.

To represent national harmony and teamwork, the design team came up with an image of archetypal citizens beneath a fluttering Korean flag.   In the meantime, the Ministry of Finance reversed its previous misgivings about issuing the commemorative coins, and impelled by their blessing, the design team soon completed the finishing work on the design sketches.   Despite the Bank president´s preference for new designs, the team significantly reduced the amount of time to prepare and sketch out its work by utilizing, with slight changes, some of the design work from the 30th Anniversary of the Republic commemoratives.   The final commemorative designs would appear on three coins:   A 20,000 Won coin featuring the citizens-and-flag design, a 1,000 Won coin featuring a phoenix, and a 100 Won coin with the Mugunghwa design.   On November 11, 1981 the President of the Bank of Korea finally affixed his consent to the proposed designs.  

While preparations at the mint got underway, the Bank of Korea confirmed the decision to mint the commemoratives in an application to the Ministry of Finance on February 13, 1981, explaining that the coins were an effort to celebrate the start of the Fifth Republic, and to help conjure an atmosphere of harmony, close cooperation, and national development.
Republic of Korea 5th Republic Commemorative coins

The Fifth Republic Commemoratives were released on August 14, 1981. Along with the regular strikes of these coins, limited numbers were made in proof versions (18,000 pieces each), and frosted proof versions (2,000 pieces each).

The obverse design of the 20,000 Won coin features images of everyday Koreans. They represent (left to right) student, soldier, woman (mother/homemaker), citizen, farmer. The obverse of the 1,000 Won coin features the Asian phoenix, traditionally symbolic of festivities and beginnings, but also of royalty, and the president of the Republic of Korea.   The 100 Won coin features the Korean variety of the Rose of Sharon, the national flower.

  Normally, the application process took six months, but in this case, approval was received four days later.   The Monetary Administration Committee also soon gave its consent, and on March 13, 1981 the Bank of Korea ordered the mint to produce 100,000 pieces of the 20,000 Won-denominated coins, two million of the 1,000 Won coins, and five million of the 100 Won coins.   The order also stipulated that 20,000 of the coins were to be minted as proof versions, with delivery expected on July 30th of that year.

South Korea in 1980

The Korean economy in 1980 was floundering from the effects of the previous year´s oil crisis in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and from a world-wide recession that year. Nationwide economic growth was below negative 5 percent, and inflation was high.   In contrast to the previous administration´s goal of massive growth, South Korea´s central economic planners under the newly inaugurated "Fifth Republic" aimed for stability of the economy, particularly price stabilization.   Their charge was to cut back on fiscal spending and tighten monetary policy, and they hoped to engender this belt-tightening behavior among the citizenry as well.   Korean economic planners had been worried for some time about the low savings rate in the country in the 1960s and 1970s compared to the much-higher household savings rates in Japan and Taiwan.   Given that the Korean War and its aftermath had damaging effects on the Korean economy that lingered for years since its end, many households had difficulty saving, and when Koreans did save, it was usually for the short term.   Consequently, the savings rate hovered at a comparatively low 20 percent of GNP in the 1970s.   The new Fifth Republic government hoped to raise the level of private and corporate saving with a policy of higher, but stable, interest rates in the 1980s.   They also used other tricks to encourage citizens to save.   One was the manner in which the Bank of Korea´s new commemorative coins were distributed upon their official release on August 14, 1981.

Frosted proof set of the 5th Republic commemorative coins

The frosted proof versions of the 1981 commemoratives were issued in three-coin sets, like this one. These proofs were struck well, and are quite attractive. And since only 2,000 each of these frosted proofs were made, they have become highly desired by Korean coin enthusiasts.

Issuing the "Fifth Republic" Commemorative Coins

In its distribution scheme for issuing the new coins commemorating the establishment of the Fifth Republic, the Bank of Korea went by three principles that were deemed important at the time:

1) Distribution of the coins should be as fair and even to as many citizens as was possible.

2) The issuance of the coins should be based on careful measurement and planning in order to avoid problems or delays in distributing the coins to the citizenry.

3) There should be set rules for distributing the coins through banking institutions that would encourage and reward personal savings, while reducing hoarding and reselling of the coins at a profit.

In the spirit of the Bank of Korea´s savings-incentive theme, the commemoratives were not to be sold, but to be given out essentially as rewards to people based on the number of savings accounts per household and the amount of savings per person.   Winners of the 20,000 Won coins were drawn from a computer-based lottery program, while winners of the 1,000 Won and 100 Won coins were drawn from a list based on the duration of time that people had maintained their savings accounts.  

The government´s decision to distribute the coins as gifts rather than sell them was based on considerations both practical and political.   A major reason was to incentivize the general public into following along with the government´s new fiscal policy.   Another reason was the Bank of Korea´s desire to avoid the previous difficulties they encountered in fairly distributing the commemoratives for the 1978 42nd World Shooting Championships.   But clearly an important consideration was the new government´s need to engender positive attitudes towards the new leadership, and to assuage the hard feelings and divisiveness deriving from the political situation of the time.

Frosted proof set of the 5th Republic commemorative coins

Despite the atmosphere of harmony and collective purpose that the Fifth Republic commemoratives were to represent, the legacy of Chun Doo-hwan’s tenure has mostly been a reviled one since he left the presidency.   Hoping to be Park Chung-hee’s second-coming, he instead left office as the least-liked of Korean presidents.   While many Koreans today claim to be fans of Park, and many others can at least appreciate some of Park’s efforts to strengthen the nation and its economy, few people liked Chun’s main efforts of grabbing the presidency for himself and turning the Korean government into a personal fiefdom for the benefit of his family and his supporters.   The brutal crackdown on dissent against his martial law order in May 1980 and the resulting deaths of at least 240 people in Kwangju (top left) was the seed of his disrepute.   Chun’s shameless-to-the-end attitude towards those deaths and to the harm that he had caused to so many others is represented by the medal (top right) that he awarded to those military personnel who participated in the 1980 suppression of public dissent (the award’s title is “Overcoming National Crisis” and is dated 3-3-81, the date of his official inauguration).   The medal is also representative of how Chun wished to spread the responsibility of his actions to as many others as possible.   His refusal to amend the constitution to allow for direct election of the president alienated the growing middle class, who in the end turned out into the streets in 1987 to send him packing without allowing him to unilaterally name his successor.   What keeps Chun disliked today is his continued refusal to pay back the bribes and the wealth his family robbed from the country.   The Washington Post reported in 2013, “…when investigators in the 1990s pored over the details of his reign, their most galling discoveries dealt with graft.  Interviewing witnesses and scouring financial records, prosecutors found that 32 companies, including Samsung and Hyundai, had paid millions to Chun nearly annually.  As part of their search, prosecutors discovered 10,000-won notes (worth about $9 each) belonging to Chun stuffed into 25 apple boxes [bottom right] in a cement warehouse.”   Added on top of all this is his recent self-pity, as evidenced in a statement he sadly (and falsely) mumbled in a court hearing that “I only have 290,000 won (267 dollars) to my name.”   Artist Lee Ha has finally and forever reduced Chun’s image to that of a diseased cur hounded by the tax authorities as he holds onto his last 290,000 Won in pink handcuffs (bottom left).

The distribution plan was announced to the public in newspaper reports in late July 1981 informing readers that the coins were legal tender pieces and would be distributed through banks to account holders according to the savings-account disbursement scheme.   The first disbursement of the commemoratives took place on August 14th, lasting eleven days, and resulted in just over 60 percent of the coins actually being given to account holders out of the total of 7,061,000 to be distributed in Korea.   A second disbursement from August 25th to the 31st ended up awarding a further 23 percent of the total to account holders.   This left just over 16 percent of the total number of coins left undistributed.   The winners of these coins either did not claim their coins from the bank, or did not know they had been awarded coins as they did not check their names on lists displayed at specific bank branches.   Most of these unissued coins were the low-denomination 100 Won commemoratives, and these were later given out on a first-come, first-served basis to people who opened new basic savings accounts.   Some of the 20,000 Won coins were also left unclaimed, and these were similarly awarded to people who opened new family savings accounts after July 1, 1981.

Popularity of the commemoratives

After their initial release, the Fifth Republic Commemoratives seem not to have been appreciated much among coin collectors and non-collectors alike, except for the rare proof varieties.   Perhaps the fact that they were issued in such large numbers for a commemorative issue (7,100,000 in total;  Most of these being the 100 Won and 1000 Won coins) probably made them appear as ubiquitous curios, rather than valued collectibles.   The low-value denominations of the coins might have also lent to their undesirability.   These coins are some of the most common, and lowest-priced, South Korean commemorative coins that coin collectors can find.   In contrast, the frosted proof three-coin sets sell for around 1,380,000 KRW (approximately $1,250,00 USD) at online retailers.   If current Google searches of these coins are any clue, many Koreans who find these coins are not quite aware of their origin, or of the novel way in which they were issued in the late summer of 1981.  
Mint bag
The regular-strike versions were distributed to issuing banks in mint bags, like this bag of 100 Won commemoratives.

Article by Mark Lovmo (2013)