Rheumatology was first recognized as a distinct clinical specialty in Korea just 35 years ago. Young professors who were trained in rheumatology in the USA and afterwards returned to Korea contributed substantially to advances in rheumatology clinical practice, educational programmes and research activities. They also established the Korean Rheumatism Association, later renamed the Korean College of Rheumatology. These young rheumatologists had a major role not only in raising the level of clinical and scientific activities, but also in promoting academic exchanges around the Asia-Pacific region, the USA and Europe. Subsequently, Korea's rapid economic growth and high education level enabled rheumatology to advance rapidly. Today, continued efforts are required to raise the standard of clinical and basic research, to optimize clinical practice with regard to new biologic agents, to exploit personalized and targeted therapies for the rheumatic diseases, and to meet the medical demands of Korea's ageing society.