What has the flair of K-pop? Historic Korean coins, obviously.

By Emily Pearce Seigerman
A round coin with a square removed from the center. One side is marked with the color orange.

The 2018 Winter Olympics are taking place in PyeongChang, South Korea. I cannot wait to watch the competitions and see some of the celebrations of Korean culture and history. The location of this year’s Olympics has given me more opportunity than usual to share one of my favorite things with my museum colleagues: K-pop (aka Korean pop music)! I, very proudly, have been introducing some of my favorite K-pop artists into the lives of my numismatic colleagues. One way I’ve done this is by forcing them to listen to the new Super Junior album Play on repeat in the vault where we conduct our daily work. Another way I have done this is by comparing some of my favorite bands with coins of Korea throughout history. Surprisingly, coins and K-pop are both dripping in personality—bold colors, and all kinds of pizazz—and, honestly, I’m shocked no one has done a comparison study until now! So, to give you a little snapshot of what it sounds like in the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) suite, here are some of my favorite Korean coins throughout history and the three K-pop bands that I identify with them!

Five men pose for a group portrait
The original five-member lineup of TVXQ, around 2008. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A round coin with a square removed from the center and aged markings
Tong Guk T’ong Bo coin, Korea, 1097

TVXQ (also called DBSK) was one of the first boy bands to dominate the surging early 2000s K-pop market. While there were K-pop bands prior to TVXQ, the band debuted with a bang, making its first public appearance with recording artists BoA and Britney Spears. The band’s distinctive K-pop style led to multiple chart-topping singles and albums in South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, and Malaysia. The Tong Guk T’ong Bo coin, like TVXQ, was one of the first distinctively Korean products. Prior to its production, the principal form of Korean exchange was bartering with rice and linen, though some coinage from China was present. The first minting of Korean coins did not begin until the 15th year of King Suk Jong’s reign (996). The new currency mimicked the cash coins of the T’ang Emperor Su Tsung of China, but it had the characters tong guk tong bo (dongkuktongbo) 東國通寶, which translates to “Eastern Country Currency.” While there are many variations for the Tong Guk T’ong Bo, their production set the standard format for Korean coins for over 600 years!

Collage of men’s portraits
Super Junior, around 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Chances are if you come into the NNC storage vault, you’ll hear Super Junior.
A round coin with a square removed from the center. One side is marked with the color orange.
Sang P’yŏng T’ong Bo coin, Hojo Treasury Department, Korea, 1633–1891

The band Super Junior formed in 2005 but skyrocketed to international fame after the release of its 2009 album, Sorry, Sorry. The group consistently received international acclaim for its music, including several UK and American awards. Super Junior is the longest-lasting K-pop band of this list thanks to its skill, variations, and versatility (and my favorite for sure). The Sang P’yŏng T’ong Bo (常平通寶) coins have similar long-lasting qualities. In 1633 these coins became the major coinage of Korea and remained so for over 200 years. These coins have the same obverse inscription, but are marked on the reverse for different Korean mints. There are over 5,000 variations for these coins, as their reverses can include everything from numbers or the five element kanjis, to some ancient Chinese poetic texts. These Korean coins are numerous in the NNC collection, and several of them have retained their bright enamel colors.

A group of men accept an award
BTS, around 2017. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The band BTS has been in the American news recently for being the first K-pop group to win a Billboard Music Award (Top Social Artist). The seven-member band has produced the highest chart-ranking K-pop album ever and the first million-selling K-pop album. The band also broke the Guinness World Record for most Twitter engagements for a music group in 2017. BTS has international reach like no other band, with performances and products that are always exceptionally shiny and ready to go. Just like BTS, these 1886 pattern coins were all about presentation and global reach. King Gojong’s (고종)—also known as the Emperor Gwangmu 광무제—pattern series was created at the newly established Chonhwankuk Government Mint in Seoul, Korea, and produced by Paul Georg von Möllendorff and Japanese engineers from the Mint at Osaka, Japan. The collaborations with other mint professionals were efforts to modernize the coinage of Korea and support its growing trade with other global powers.

A range of brown, silver, and gold colored coins organized in rows
A selection of the 1886 pattern coins

As you cheer on team USA during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic games, remember to engage with the (pop)culture and history of the host country! If you do, your Olympic soundtrack will be filled with some of the same tunes that I play loudly inside the National Numismatic Collection’s vault.

Emily Pearce Seigerman is a museum specialist with the National Numismatic Collection and a die-hard Super Junior fan. Craving more East Asian numismatics? Check out her blog on Spade and Knife money.