A Brief History of the South Korean Flag

Incheon Asian Games 2014
Incheon Asian Games 2014 | © KoreaNet / Flickr
Mimsie Ladner

The flag of South Korea, also known as the Taegeukgi, is a symbolic icon that represents peace, unification, creation, light and eternity. This powerful representation of the East Asian nation has grown to become one of pride for the Korean people, but it also has an interesting history. Read on to find out more.

Prior to the 1870s, Korea did not have a national flag, nor did the country see a use for one. It wasn’t until the beginning of the negotiations for the Japan – Korea Treaty of 1876 that the issue arose. When the delegate of the Empire of Japan presented the Japanese national flag, and the Joseon Dynasty did not have a corresponding flag to hang, it was proposed, but not with great priority, that a Korean flag be designed.

The escalation of foreign negotiations in the following years further prompted the necessity for a national flag. One of these proposals was described in the “Korea Strategy” papers written by the Chinese delegate Huang Zunxian. The plan suggested incorporating the flag of the Qing Dynasty into the flag of the Joseon Dynasty. Lee Young-Sook, a delegate of the Joseon Dynasty, was sent to discuss the issue with politician Li Hongzhang, who agreed with the idea, but suggested some changes of his own. It is unknown how far the Joseon government explored this proposal thereafter.

South Korean flags wave proudly on Korea’s National Liberation Day

The issue reemerged in 1882, when Lee Eung-Jun, a Joseon delegate, presented a flag similar to Japan’s to the Chinese official and scholar Ma Jianzhong. Ma disagreed with the proposed idea of using the flag of the Qing Dynasty and suggested instead a flag with a white background; a half-red, half-black circle at the center and eight black bars around the circle.

On August 22, 1882, Korean politician Park Yeong-hyo presented a scale model of the Taegeukgi to the Joseon government, and soon became the first person to use the flag in the Empire of Japan later that year. In March 1883, the Joseon government formally established the Taegeukgi as the official national flag.

A version similar to the current South Korean flag continued to be used up until the division of Korea, when each country then used its own flag. On October 15, 1949, the current South Korean flag was declared official by the country’s government, although it had been used as the de facto national flag for some time before then. Later on, in October 1997, the exact colors of the flag were defined through presidential decree.

Flag of South Korea

The current South Korean flag has a white background, a color that represents lightness, purity and Korea’s love of peace, and is commonly found in other aspects of Korean culture, including hanbok, the country’s national dress.

The taegeuk, or circle at the center from which the flag takes its name, is the yin and yang symbol which represents balance in the universe. The red portion of the circle symbolizes the opposing positive cosmic forces, while the blue portion denotes the negative cosmic forces.

Korean wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo displays the Taegeukgi at 2012 London Olympic Games

The four trigrams that encompass the circle each represent illustrate the process of yin and yang undergoing a continuous cycle of change and growth. The three lines on the upper left represent sky (Geon), those on the upper right represent water (Gam), the trigram on the lower right represents earth (Gon) and the one on the lower left represent fire (Ri).

Together, the components of the design of the Taegeukgi are not only representative of the nation’s values and ideologies of years past, but also symbolize the principle of movement and harmony, concepts that will certainly play an integral role in South Korea’s future.

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