Get to Know The Faces You’ll See Everyday in Korea – Who’s on South Korean Money – Seoulistic

Get to Know The Faces You’ll See Everyday in Korea – Who’s on South Korean Money

[Note: This is a repost in response to a reader’s question about who is on Korean money.]

If you’re in Korea, of course you’ll have to deal with South Korean won. You’ll use money pretty much every day you’re in Korea, and that means you’ll be seeing these faces everyday too. If you’re going to see someone everyday, you should at least get to know their names! Find out why these people are some of the most awesome people in Korean history!


50,000 won (bank note)

Shin Saimdang (신사임당)

The most recent addition to the Korean won banknotes is the only sexy lady to be on any South Korean bank note (just kidding, she wasn’t that sexy). Shin Saimdang was a calligraphist, poet, writer, artist among other awesome Korean things. But what she’s really known for is simply being a “good wife and wise mother.” No, seriously. She did all that awesome stuff that most women could only dream of doing, but back in the 1500’s, it was more important to be just that. Good thing she was good at that too because she mothered Yulgok, one of Korea’s greatest scholars and also the face of the 5,000 won South Korean bank note (see below). So if we go by blood that kindaaa means she’s on one and a half Korean bank notes. Yay for Korean moms!


10,000 won (bank note)

King Sejong the Great (세종대왕 – Sejongdaewang)

If you don’t know this man, you will once you come to Korea. Everyone and everyone knows King Sejong the Great, probably one of Korea’s most famous people ever. He’s the type of leader that comes only once in many millennia, and Koreans are immensely proud of him. Here’s why: before him Koreans used Chinese characters to write Korean (awkward! try doing that with English!). But this great man came along and became most famous for leading the effort for the creation of a brand new writing system, Hangeul. Hold on. Maybe you didn’t get that. Try reading that again… the creation of a writing system (crazy, yo!). He makes us all look like talentless nobodies! But now because of him even the most casual travelers to Korea can learn to read Korean on a 4 hour flight to Korea (really). If you’re studying Chinese, you’re mega jealous!

5,000 won (bank note)

Yi I (이이), aka Yulgok (율곡)

The son of 50,000 won mommy Shin Saimdang, this man was probably much much smarter than you. By 3 he was reading, by 7 he was done with his Confucian classics lessons, by 13 he passed the Civil Service literary exam, and by 16 he decided to devote himself to the study of Buddhism by moving to the mountains. Smart guy, huh? More than his political contributions and multiple works as an author, he is most famous for his Neo-Confucian teachings, stuff that most of us just can’t even begin to understand. He was also a kind of a Nostradamus of his time as he suggested that Korea should build up its military, warning that the Japanese were going to come soon.When the Japanese finally did come for a fight in the Imjin War, the boys at the royal court were probably all thinking, “damn, should have listened to the really smart dude :(.”


1,000 won (bank note)

Yi Hwang (이황), aka Toegye (퇴계)

There’s two really famous guys for being smart in Korean history. Yulgok (5,000 won guy) was one, and his teacher Toegye is the other famous Korean child prodigy and really, really smart guy. He learned the Analects of Confucius at age 12, an age when most of us can barely finish Harry Potter. And by 18, just about when most people finish high school, he had already written one of his major poems. Just like Yulgok, he held many different positions in the government, and he even had a really cool job called secret royal inspector (unclear whether the doo-rag was part of the uniform). But he was also famous for his super intellectual Neo-Confucian teachings, just like Yulgok. And although Toegye taught Yulgok, they were actually philosophical rivals of sorts. Too bad there wasn’t any kind of backstabbing so his story could be turned into a historical Korean drama.


100 Won (coin)

Admiral Yi Sun-shin (이순신)

If you’ve ever been to Gwanghwamun (a famous tourist attraction in Seoul), there’s this ultra awesome statue of a guy with a big ol’ whooping stick. That’s Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, one of Korea’s most legendary badasses. He fought off Japanese invaders during the Imjin War that Yulgok (5,000 won guy) warned about. And he did it with these uber cool ships called Turtle ships, complete with a spikey shell and smoke breathing dragon head. (The ship is also on the 5 won coin). What makes Admiral Yi the stuff of legends are the battles he fought (he also had Hollywood-worthy quotes). His most “don’t mess with this guy” moment was the Battle of Myeongnyang, when he defeated 333 ships with only 13 of his own. While he was fighting, we’re pretty sure he screamed out “This is Sparta Korea!”


Other Coins

1 won coin – Rose of sharon (무궁화) – The national flower of South Korea.
5 won coin – Turtle ship (거북선) – Used in naval battles (see 100 won coin)
10 won coin – Dabotap Pagoda (다보탑) – Pagoda located at Bulguksa Temple
50 won coin – A stalk of rice
500 won coin – Red crowned crane (두루미) – Crane found in Korea

Note: Much of the information from this post has been obtained from Wikipedia and from Boram Yoo (thanks!).
Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.


  1. Danae says:

    First of all I love the way that you write! Second, your timing is excellent! I was wondering about Korean money and ta-daaa!!! Thanks a lot for the infos!!

  2. Dia says:

    This was soo much fun to read! I read another article this morning about Korean money. It was boring beyond comprehension. This was definitely more interesting and a lot easier to understand. Thanks for writing it and continue to write!

  3. chocoball noona (@chocoballnoona) says:

    Hi.this is indeed very informative.I like your writing style.You do your research first before you post anything. that’s how I do things too. I do know some of those figures you mentioned as I stumbled upon them when I was doing my reading and research on Hwang Jin Yi.I bet you know her too.anyway, thanks for sharing this.compact and it.keep posting.anneyeong

  4. Edward says:

    This is a great writeup! I have these all saved in a closet or dresser drawer but never knew who was featured (other than King Sejong). Thanks for the history lesson!

  5. Vera says:

    Oh geez, you are funny. I always wondered about the do rag 😉 This makes me want to pull out the Korean money I have and match them up.

  6. Izzy Teo says:

    Why do i see a 보기 on your notes attached but i do not see on actual pbysical korean won notes?

  7. vivien says:

    hi! thanks for the info and i really like your writing style! u made history lesson more interesting and fun! haha 😀

    hi i think 보기 is just like “SAMPLE” that you would find on sample money/notes 🙂

  8. Zara says:

    Thanks for the info! I’ve always been curious! I’m going to link to this on my blog 🙂

  9. Miem says:

    This is awesome!! now i know the history behind these faces on Korean money ~ thank you!! ^^

  10. Helen says:

    Very nice! We grew up in California but are 15th generation direct descendants of Toegye. My brother is spending the year in Seoul, and I’ve sent him a link to this very useful site so he’s less a fish out of water. Thanks!

  11. Shannon says:

    Who would imagine that Korean money is so interesting and cool? I know I wouldn’t.
    Korean history is really interesting. And Korea had really smart people, I’m not even sure if they were human beings. Are there people that smart?
    I didn’t know about the 50,000 won. I’ve saw it before and now I know the person on it and that she was a really inspirational person.
    In Brazil our the notes have “Brazilian” animals that are in risk of being extincts.

  12. Alin says:

    the way you tell the story makes me giggle 😀 you made my day :)) oya, this is an awesome info for foreigner like me. so, thank you 😉

  13. name says:

    awesome. funny and great language, easy to read and understand!

  14. Kate says:

    I’ve lived here for 8 months now and you’re telling me there’s a 1 won and a 5 won coin?! I’ve never seen ’em.
    New life goal: Get full set of Korean money.

  15. Jessi is awesome says:

    Omg!!!!! Thank you so so so much!!!!!!!!!!! You just saved my life with my homework and stuff! This just might call for slavery. You have no idea how much you saved me.

  16. Pinaywriter says:

    This is a great thing to know. I teach Koreans but I don’t really have to know everything about them. But your site is a great read. ^^ I am recommending it to newbies in my company since it’s quirky and not too overwhelming (info wise)

  17. Sunny says:

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  18. Thanks for the information it was highly appreciated. I just got through looking at the drama Saimdang, Light’s Diary again complete with eng. Sub. She was a strong woman no wander she is on the highest note in the land. The 50,000 won ( bank note).

  19. Gloria says:

    Thanks for the info…
    I hope you are kidding when you say ‘most of us’ barely make it through Harry Potter by 12…

  20. Regius says:

    I have coin 100 two year 1994 and 1973
    So how can collect and make money

  21. aicrypto says:

    In South Korea, the faces on the money are people who have made contributions to society.

    The first person to be featured on South Korean currency was King Sejong. He is famous for introducing Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in 1446. The second person was Empress Myeongseong, who ruled from 1895 to 1907. She is most remembered for being assassinated by Japanese troops in 1895 and for her role in modernizing Korea at the end of the 19th century. Emperor Sunjong became the third person to be featured on Korean currency when he ruled from 1926 until his death in 1944.

    There are also people who have made contributions that aren’t related to politics or ruling such as sports figures and scientists. These include baseball player Doo-wop Chang, figure skater Donald Jackson, and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.Many of these people have been recognized for their work in the field of politics or government by being awarded with an honorary title.

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