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The Origins of Korea's First National UniversityFrom the age of the Great Han Empire when modern higher education started, to the colonial period.

The origin of Seoul National University (SNU) dates back to the late nineteenth century when Korean Emperor Gojong established modern higher education institutions which later became part of SNU.

In 1895 Emperor Gojong issued Imperial Order 49 and established the Legal Training School as the first modern higher education institution in Korea. It turned out 209 graduates including the Martyr Yi Jun.

The Seoul (Hanseong) Normal School, the first modern teacher training school was established in the same year and later became the SNU College of Education.

notextYi Jun (left), one of the first graduates of the National Law Academy, led the Hague Secret Emissary. Ji Seok Young (right) fought off the smallpox in Korea and served as the principal of the Euihakkyo (the Medical School)

The Euihakkyo (Medical School) was established by law in 1899 and raised modern medical doctors. JI Seok Young, a great scholar and doctor who had successfully fought off the smallpox in Korea, led the School as the principal for seven years.

The SNU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is the successor to the School of Agriculture and Forestry in 1906. The SNU College of Nursing finds its origin at the opening of the Nursing Education Division in the Great Han Medical Center in 1907.

The Founding YearsFrom the founding of the University in October 1946, through the Korean War,
to the re-opening of the school in September 1953.

notextThe headquarter in Dongsung-dong campus, 1946

The early years of Seoul National University were marked by trials and tribulations during a time of turmoil. After gaining independence from Japan in 1945, one hundred dignitaries of the National Committee on Educational Planning proposed opening a national university by making use of the Seoul University buildings.

With the support of Korean officials working at the Department of Education of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, a proposal to establish “Seoul National University” was formally announced on July 13, 1946, and was formalized in an Ordinance to establish Seoul National University on August 22, 1946.

Following the ordinance, Seoul National University opened in October 1946 with nine colleges and one graduate school. The Colleges included were those of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture, Law, Education, Commerce, Medicine, Fine Arts, and Dentistry.

However, many students and professors objected to the idea of opening a national university, leading to a campaign to oppose its establishment. This demonstration spread throughout the country, involving 57 schools and more than 40,000 students, However a counter-campaign supporting the establishment of the national university was mounted as well, demanding that classes continue. As a result, 4,956 students who started the demonstration were expelled in May 1947, and 3,158 of whom were readmitted to the university on Independence Day of the same year.

The University was finally able to resume classes in September 1947, after a year of chaos. Unfortunately, the challenge to establish a national university continued. Due to the Korean War in 1950, the University had to evacuate and relocate to Busan. Along with other private universities that had evacuated to Busan. The University formed a “War-time Union University” which lasted from February 1951 to May 1952.

Even during this time of evacuation, faculty and students worked hard to expand the spectrum of learning for students: The College of Pharmacy was established in September 1950; the College of Art was divided into the College of Fine Arts and College of Music in April 1953; and the Department of Veterinary Medicine in the College of Agriculture was made into the College of Veterinary Medicine. As a result, the university became an integrated educational institution with 12 colleges and a graduate school.

The Formative Years: Building the University of the Nation From the return to Seoul in September 1953, to February 1975.

notextCeremony for returning to Seoul campus at the end of Korean War, Oct. 15, 1953

With the suspension of the Korean War, Seoul National University returned to Seoul in September 1953. However, the aftermath of the war was disastrous for the university. In some departments, more than half of the students went missing during the war and many of the professors had crossed the border into North Korea, been kidnapped, or expelled. The original campus had been demolished due to its usage as an army base. Moreover, ancient documents that had been kept in Kyujanggak as national treasures had to be found and restored, after having been packed and hidden by North Koreans with the intention of taking them to the North.

notextThe registration period, March 22, 1957

The University soon began restoration with the goal of building a university for the nation. It was determined to be the premier institution of higher education that could represent the country, and further enrich the future of the nation. To ensure its autonomy, the university adopted the system of getting the consent of the professors in appointing the president and vice president of the school beginning in 1954. In 1955, the symbols representing the university identity of each College were unified and became those currently used today. Also, the Graduate Schools of Public Health and Public Administration were established during this time.

Through the administering of strict entrance exams beginning in 1955, only the most highly qualified students began to enter the University. Young and passionate professors joined the school as well, placing the school as the indisputable leader of higher education in Korea.

When the country’s corrupted regime engaged in illegal elections that destroyed the fundamentals of democracy, the students and professors of Seoul National University led the “April 19 Revolution.” The movement was at first considered to be successful. However, after one year, a coup d’etat occurred and the military government suppressed the University’s attempts to democratize and keep its autonomy. The military government drafted elite manpower of the University and mobilized them to serve for the implementation of its economic development plans. The system to appoint the president only with the consent of the professors was denied and educational autonomy was completely banned. On the other hand, specialized graduate schools were allowed to be established. During this era, the Graduate Schools of Judicial Research & Training (1962), Education (1963), Mass Communication (1967) and Environmental Studies (1973) were established.

Students continued to protest against the dictatorship of the military government through demonstrations for democracy. Students from Seoul National University led the demonstration of June 3, 1965, objecting to the Korea-Japan Treaty. Also during this period, the “Ten-Year Development Plan” was finalized in 1968 and the University began its preparations to relocate its campuses.

Integrating the University SystemFrom February 1975 when the main campus was moved to Gwanak to 1987

notextGroundbreaking ceremony for the new Gwanak Campus, Apr. 2, 1971

All Colleges and Graduate Schools except for medical schools in Yeongeon and the College of Agriculture in Suwon, moved to the current Gwanak campus in February 1975.

In this process, some changes were made to the organization of the colleges: The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Commerce were divided into the Colleges of Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Business Administration. The university was reorganized with 15 Colleges, one Graduate School, and three Specialized Schools.

The Measure also forced universities to increase admissions numbers while imposing quotas on the numbers of graduating students. Private tutoring for high school students was also banned. As a result, the Gwanak campus saw the size of its student body double and suffered from a shortage of facilities. The entire campus became almost like a construction site when the building of new facilities started with a fund which was formed too late.

However, on campus there was never much peace, with students and professors engaged in the democratization movement against the dictatorship of the military government. The government even threatened to close down the University with “Emergency Act 9.” The government authorities stationed forces on campus, and formed a system to mobilize the professors to ban student demonstrations. With the July 30 Educational Reform of 1980, the main entrance exam system was officially dismantled.

The Measure also forced universities to increase admissions numbers while imposing quotas on the numbers of graduating students. Private tutoring for high school students was also banned. As a result, the Gwanak campus saw the size of its student body double and suffered from a shortage of facilities. The entire campus became almost like a construction site when the building of new facilities started with a fund which was formed too late.

The goal of “research-oriented education” that Seoul National University once attempted to achieve after the opening of the Gwanak campus seemed to be delayed for the foreseeable future due to the policies enforced by the military government.

Democratization of the University From June 1987, when the military government surrendered to the civil democratization movement followed by the "June 29 Democratization Declaration", to December 1999.

notextSNU students demonstrating for a democratic government, May 1980

The military government had realized that any further suppression of student and civil movements longing for democracy would lead to the fall of the regime.

A presidential candidate from the ruling military party initiated the announcement of the “June 29 Democratization Declaration” to avoid any further turmoil. The 6th Republic brought back the system which was taken away by the military government: the president of the university was again elected by the professors and the council of professors was restored.

With the inauguration of “civilian government” in February of 1993, all students of the university once expelled for demonstrating against the government were re-admitted to the university. Finally, the university became stable and normalized, and many research centers in diversified fields were established. During the civilian government, the BK21 Project, a government-sponsored educational enhancement program, was launched and the university was able to establish and reinforce specialized research institutes.

The contents of History of Seoul National University were adopted from The 60th Anniversary of Seoul National University Development and Future Challenges, 2006, a speech presented by Professor Emeritus SHIN Yong Ha. The speech was made at the academic symposium held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Seoul National University

Last updated in 2016