For over 35 years, the biggest banknote in South Korea has been the Won10,000, now worth only $7.80 (£4.75, €5.50). South Korea on Tuesday finally issued a Won50,000 note, despite concerns that it could stoke corruption and inflation.
Per-capita income in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy has grown 110 times since the Won10,000 bill appeared in 1973 and consumer prices have risen twelvefold.
The new note breaks ground in featuring a woman, 16th-century aristocrat Shin Saimdang. Although she was a celebrated painter, feminists grumbled that the central bank chose her as “the best example of motherhood in Korean history”.
Women’s groups said there were more feisty role models from Korean history than a paragon of Confucian maternal virtue.
Credit cards are widely used in the world’s most wired nation, but those who want to avoid them have to carry wads of small bills or use cheques of fixed sums.
South Koreans brawled in front of the central bank on Tuesday, desperate to get hold of early serial numbers of the new banknote, hoping those bills will soar in value in the coming years.
Owing to such high demand, most banks had to put a ceiling on the amount each customer could exchange. Even so, the Bank of Korea estimated that about Won1,600bn of new notes were circulated.
Retailers hope the higher-value notes could encourage more spending to revive the sluggish Korean economy, forecast to contract by 2 per cent this year, hit by slowing exports and weak consumption. But economists cautioned that the new bills could increase inflationary pressure.
Consumer prices remain low but there are fears they could rise sharply at the end of this year after the government pumped billions of dollars into the economy through fiscal stimulus measures and lower interest rates.
Another concern is that the higher denomination could make corruption easier in a country already infamous for bribery.
Get alerts on Central banks when a new story is published