A Brief Introduction to the Korean Award System

The history of the Republic of Korea's Award System is extremely complex. Between the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15th, 1945 and the creation of the Republic of Korea's first Orders and Merit Medals in 1949, there were a number of awards created. However, because they were not awarded by the central government of the Republic of Korea, but by various departments and ministries, such as the Korean National Police or the Minstry of Defense, none of these awards appear in any official ROK publications. When the Korean War erupted on June 25th, 1950, the government found a need to create several new orders to reward the foreigners who came to Koreas aid. This initial system was created piecemeal and exhibits a certain degree of naivete. After the war, the Award System remained fairly static until 1961, when Park Chung Hee took over the administration of the country. Under his leadership, the Korean award system was expanded. Some of the new Orders were for the military, while others were aimed at bolstering the country, both internally and externally. Probably the most difficult period to understand occured in the late 60's and early 70's. There were design changes to almost every Order/Medal in 1967, 1969 and in 1971. In 1972, a referendum amended the Korean Constitution, which is now referred to as the Yushin (Revitalizing Reforms) Constitution. As part of this revitalizing effort, the Korean Government reviewed its Award System, and in January of 1973, several new Orders and Merit Medals were created. The only major change since then, has been the creation of an Order for Science and Technology.

1955 - Key to the city of Seoul
Elements of the Current Award System

ORDERS (훈장 Hun Jang) are the highest and most coveted awards issued by the Republic of Korea. Currently there are 12 different Orders, the last one being established in 2001. The highest Order, the Grand Order of Mugunghwa, is a single class Order and is reserved for the President of Korea, foreign Heads of State and their spouses. The Order of Diplomatic Merit, is a five class Order, but the first class has two different grades, one for Korean diplomats and one for foreign diplomats. The remaining 10 orders are all composed of five classes. For an example of the currently used system of sashes, cravats, breast stars, etc., see the picture at the bottom of this page.

MERIT MEDALS (보장 Po jang) are that group of awards just below Orders. These are often referred to as the "6th class" of the Orders. The term is incorrect, but nevertheless, helpful in explaining their importance in the overall system. In Korean publications, they are referred to, in English, as either "Medals of Merit" or as "Medals of Honor". In all Korean publications and websites, they are always listed separately form the Orders. The first Merit Medals were created in 1949. They have undergone significant change since then. Currently there are 12 Merit Medals in use. The last one being established in Jan. 2001.

COMMENDATIONS (표창 Pyo chang) are the third highest group of awards. They are issued by the President of the Republic of Korea to individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the nation. These commendations include the Presidential Citation, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Presidential Prize. (In addition, the Prime Minister and a number of government ministries have similar commendation systems. Unfortunately, until I can gather more information, these other systems are currently beyond the scope of this website.)
MEDALS (기장 Ki jang) are at the bottom level of the Korean award system. These are the various commemorative medals, war service medals, campaign and other misc. medals. The Decorations and Awards Division of the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs strictly controls Korean Orders, Merit Medals, and Presidential Commendations, but has never controlled KiJang. The administration of these medals is controlled by various organizations, which is often confusing. For example, a number of awards for the Police were originally controlled by the Ministry of Defense. Consequently, it is very difficult to obtain any information. Most of the government bureaus simply do not want to be bothered, and will not give any assistance. (I have a great deal of information on these medals, but there is still much more that needs to be uncovered. Until then, they are also beyond the scope of this website.)

OTHER TYPES OF AWARDS are used by the Korean government. There are generally two types of this award, one being a "Letters of Appreciation", and another being some type of momento given to commemorate a persons visit. Probably the ultimate award in this category is a "Key to the City", such as the ones pictured here.

Key to the City of Seoul

Order of Diplomatic Service Merit

Pictured here is a good example of a standard Korean Order.

  • The First Class has a sash and breast star.
  • The Second Class has a cravat and a slightly smaller breast star.
  • The Third Class has a cravat and no breast star.
  • The Fourth and Fifth Classes are standard breast medals.

However, variations do exist.
  • The Order of National Foundation has a sash for both the first and second class.
  • The Order of National Foundation also has breast stars for the first three classes.
  • After this picture was taken, the First Class of the Order of Diplomatic Service was divided into two grades, both of which have sashes and breast stars.