Many terrestrial orchids are historically rare and occur in small, spatially isolated populations. Theory predicts that such species will harbour low levels of genetic variation within populations and will exhibit a high degree of population genetic divergence, primarily as a result of genetic drift. If the origin of the present-day populations is relatively recent from the same genetically depauperate source population, a complete lack of genetic differentiation between conspecific populations is expected. If a terrestrial orchid was historically common with moderate or high levels of genetic diversity, but has experienced more recent anthropogenic disturbance as a result of over-collection, it would still exhibit initial levels of genetic variation within populations and a low degree of genetic divergence between populations. To test these predictions, we examined the genetic diversity in six populations (N = 131) of the historically and currently rare Cypripedium japonicum and in four populations (N = 94) of the historically common but now rare C. macranthos from South Korea. Fourteen putative allozyme loci resolved from eight enzyme systems revealed no variation either within or among populations of C. japonicum, which supports the first prediction. In contrast, populations of C. macranthos harboured high levels of genetic variation (mean percentage of polymorphic loci %P = 46.7; mean expected heterozygosity He = 0.185) and exhibited a low degree of population genetic divergence (GST = 0.059), supporting the second prediction. The lack of genetic variation both within and among conspecific populations of C. japonicum may suggest that populations originated from the same genetically depauperate ancestral population. The high levels of genetic diversity maintained in populations of C. macranthos suggest that the collection-mediated decrease in the number of individuals is still too recent for long-term effects on genetic variation. Based on current demographic and genetic data, in situ and ex situ conservation strategies should be provided to preserve genetic variation and to ensure the long-term survival of the two species in the Korean Peninsula. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 160, 119–129.