Among the recent series of diplomatic breakthroughs achieved between South and North Korea is an agreement that the two countries will march under a unified Korean flag at the Winter Olympic games being held in Pyeongchang in February.
Though South Korean president Moon Jae-in is hailing the agreement as a significant achievement in his bid to bring peace on the Korean peninsula, it isn’t something that all of South Korea can get behind. Another agreement, the decision to field a joint South-North Korean women’s hockey team at the games, has also been met with mixed reactions, not least from the South Korean female hockey players themselves. On Saturday (Jan. 20), the Koreas will meet International Olympic Committee officials in Switzerland to hammer out the details, including about the flags they’ll carry.
This year won’t be the first time that the white-and-blue flag is being used—in previous periods of detente between the two countries, athletes representing both Koreas have marched under it.
The origin of the unified flag
Discussions for a joint North-South Korean sports team had been taking place since the 1960s. Officials from the two sides met in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong on May 17, 1963 to discuss competing in the Olympics as one nation for the first time since the division of the peninsula. However, the negotiations failed to come to fruition (pdf, p.6).
Inter-Korea talks continued throughout the 1980s (link in Korean), mostly focusing on the realm of sports, but no significant progress was made.
However, ahead of the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, representatives from the two Koreas came up with what is now referred to as the Korean unification flag, which features a blue illustration of the Korean peninsula over a white background. Even though the efforts to create a united Korean team for those games were not realized, the first-ever joint cheering team (pdf, p.9) appeared during those games.
The Korean unification flag was used for the first time by a unified Korean team at the World Table Tennis Championship in 1991 in Chiba, Japan (paywall).
Athletes from the two countries have also marched together under the flag at the Summer and Winter Olympics: in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2003, and Turin in 2006. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then-chief of the International Olympic Committee, helped broker the agreement ahead of a historic meeting between then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that happened shortly before the Sydney games. In response to the decision that both countries’ flags would be displayed after the unification flag during the opening ceremony, Kim Jong-il said he didn’t think that was necessary because the ultimate goal for both sides was reunification.
The unification flag has not been used officially after the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, as inter-Korea relations deteriorated during the conservative administrations of presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) in South Korea.
Whose flag is it anyway?
The fact that the unification flag has been able to make so many international appearances despite having no official status in either country is an issue for some.
Kim Hyo-jong, a politics professor at Seoul National University, said in an interview (link in Korean) in 2005: “The unification flag was decided by working-level officials from the South and the North as a temporary expedient. It’s problematic that many people have come to regard it as an official flag of a unified Korea.”
This time, it’s also clear that many in South Korea are not on board with the decision for their athletes to jointly compete with North Korea and march under a unified flag. With the Winter Olympics just three weeks away, a recent poll showed only four out of 10 South Koreans are in favor of using the unification flag. Opposition was especially strong among conservative South Koreans, with 68.5% of conservatives polled opposing the use of the flag.
The dissatisfaction surrounding the Olympics arrangements helped push Moon’s approval ratings to below 70%, a four-month low, though support among young people remain high.
Yoo Seong-min, the leader of the opposition conservative Bareun party, criticized the arrangement of the two Koreas marching together and fielding a joint women’s hockey team on Jan. 18. He accused (link in Korean) president Moon of forcing individuals to sacrifice in order to create a “historical scene.”
The seemingly clean and simple blue-and-white flag has, in fact, undergone some subtle yet provocative changes (link in Korean) over the years, linked to Korean territorial claims.
During talks held ahead of the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, the two Koreas agreed that the flag would only include the peninsula and Jeju island, which lies to the south of South Korea. Other outlying islands were not included. At the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan, South Korea, Ulleungdo island, east of South Korea, was added to the flag.
Then, at the 2003 Asian Winter Games held in Japan, the disputed Liancourt Rocks were added to signify Korean ownership of the territory. The Liancourt Rocks are more commonly known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, and are a major source of friction between the two countries.
When a maritime dispute surrounding Socotra Rock—which lies squarely between Japan, South Korea, and China—flared up in 2006, the tiny isle was also added to the flag.
With Japan and China competing in the games, which begin Feb. 9, and wary of the Koreas’ Olympics diplomacy, it’ll be interesting to see which unified Korea flag makes an appearance this time.