A Closer Look at Korean Banknotes


**Last updated on: 15 October 2020**

When you travel to South Korea, one of the items that accompanies you all the time is the Korean banknotes.  Although it is such a must-have item, many people do not take a closer look at the pictures on these banknotes and understand the stories behind them, and in the past I was one of them.  However, after I had got more information on the portraits and pictures printed on these banknotes, I could really appreciate the importance of the Confucian culture in the Korean society. In this blog post, let’s talk about the stories behind these banknotes.

The official currency of South Korea is called “won” (원).  The banknotes currently in circulation are in 4 denominations, namely, 1,000-won-note, 5,000-won-note, 10,000-won-note and 50,000-won-note.  For the front and back views of these 4 types of banknotes, you can click this link.  Let’s talk about the portraits and the pictures on these banknotes:


Basic colour – Blue

Front – The portrait is that of Toegye Yi Hwang (1501-1570), one of the distinguished Confucian scholars during the Joseon period.  He loved maehwa blossoms very much and it is said that his dying wish was that his son would continue to water his maehwa tree. So, maehwa blossoms are included at the back of his portrait.  Also at the back of the portrait is the Myeongnyundang, the lecture hall of Sungkyunkwan (which was the top Confucian educational institution during the Joseon period). Toegye Yi Hwang had served as the head teacher of Sungkyunkwan.

Back – The landscape drawing is from the famous artist Kyomjae Jeong Seon (1676-1759) of the Joseon period, and is a designated national treasure. The house depicted in the drawing is the early appearance of Dosanseodang and you can even find a man studying inside the house, because this was the place where Toegye Yi Hwang retired to study and teach.


Basic colour – Red and yellow

Front – The portrait is that of Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584), also a prominent Confucian scholar during the Joseon period.  He was the third son of Shin Saimdang whose portrait appears on the 50,000-won-note. The building behind his portrait is the Ojukheon House where Shin Saimdang lived and Yulgok Yi I was born.

Back – The painting of insects and plants is from Shin Saimdang, who was a well-known painter specializing in insect and plant paintings.


Basic colour – Green

Front – The portrait is that of a very popular and well-respected person in South Korea – King Sejong the Great (1397-1450), who was the 4th king of Joseon Dynasty. He was versatile and brought many inventions to Korea, including the creation of Hangeul, the Korean language.  During his reign, he based his ruling on Confucianism which had become the social norm. For details of the achievements of King Sejong the Great, you can read my blog post dated 16 January 2015.  The banknote also showcases the achievements of King Sejong the Great. For example, at the back of his portrait, there is one paragraph from the first work written completely in Hangeul, Yongbieocheonga (용비어천가, literally means “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”). Also included is a symbol of the king in the Joseon Dynasty – the painting depicting the sun, the moon and the five peaks that hung behind the royal throne.

Back – The picture is that of a celestial globe invented by King Sejong the Great.  You can also find a model of celestial globe in front of the statue of King Sejong the Great at the Gwanghwamun Square.


Basic colour – Yellow

Front – As mentioned above, the portrait is that of Shin Saimdang (1504-1551), the mother of the prominent Confucian scholar, Yulgok Yi I. She was regarded as the model of good wife and wise mother, and was also a well-known painter. She was the first female to appear on the Korean banknotes.  At the back of her portrait is the painting of grapes and grapevines by Shin Saimdang. There was an interesting story relating to the painting of grapes and grapevines. It was said that a cup of tea was spilled on the skirt of a lady at a gathering in which Shin Saimdang participated. When the lady began to cry as her skirt was ruined by the tea stains, Shin Saimdang used the shapes of the tea stains to create the images of large leaves on a grape vine on the skirt, and “saved” the skirt by turning the tea stains into a wonderful painting of grapes and grapevines.  Her creative work astonished the people at the gathering. This anecdote was also depicted in Episode 13 of the recent Korean TV drama “Saimdang, Light’s Diary” (사임당, 빛의 일기).

Back – The paintings of bamboo and plum blossoms were famous works from other artists of the Joseon period.

Now that you learn more about the stories behind the Korean banknotes, you may also feel the importance of the Confucian culture in the hearts of the Koreans and also better understand the people whose portraits appear on the banknotes.  Next time when you use the banknotes, please don’t forget to say “Hello” to the people appearing on the banknotes.

Reminder: You can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  For flash news on Korean culture, you can also follow me on Twitter (Kalbi8888).


Korea Tourism Organization, “Let’s Delve into the Secrets Hidden Inside Korean Money!“, Stripes Korea, 2018-08-01


2 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Korean Banknotes

  1. I love reading your detailed ‘notes’ (pun intended) on Korean currency. I also love how you take the reader through a journey. When I visit Korea later this year, I would love to meet up with you.

    I sent you a message earlier and just followed you on Twitter as @mosibyl.


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