The resemblance is uncanny. Learn the history behind the flags of Korea.
“Hey, nice work on the ambush marketing, Pepsi!”
When two groups of performers slowly merged to form a giant circle of perfectly interlocked red and blue symbols, similar to what you would find on a Pepsi can, during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games social media exploded with a rush of tweets and posts from TV viewers around the globe.
How was Pepsi, whose name was not even on the sponsor list, able to just come out of left field and make the most brazen appearance, so much so that the world-(in)famous streaker Mark Roberts, who crashed multiple Olympic events wearing a pink tutu and monkey penis, would have been dwarfed when it came to exposure? Was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) caught off guard by Pepsi’s well-orchestrated ambush marketing tactics?
PYEONGCHANG OPLYMPIC SOUVENIRS [Amazon]
Well, the answer is a flat no because Pepsi was in no way involved in this scene, it’s safe to assume that 99.9% of those tweets were meant to be a joke (most of them made it clear by adding a footnote saying they know it’s the Korean flag). But this short-lived social media fad is actually an accurate illustration of how people have this common misperception towards the uncanny similarity between the Pepsi logo and the Korean flag.
So the big question is – How did Pepsi get to bear the Korean symbol on their products? Or, how did the Koreans get the right to use the Pepsi logo on the flag? I’ve heard many different versions, but the one I liked the most was how a Korean billionaire saved Pepsi from going bankrupt with a wad of money and demanded to put the Korean symbol in return.
It first appeared in the 1940s, during World War II, and was meant as a show of U.S. patriotism and support for the troops fighting abroad. The motif still lives on, with minor tweaks like updated type font and slight size adjustments every now and then. While it’s fun to speculate, the Pepsi logo and the Korean flag have nothing to do with each other. The Pepsi logo, which is one of the most recognizable corporate trademarks in the world, features three colors – red, white, and blue (hint, hint!), forming a sphere-like shape.
HISTORY OF THE KOREAN FLAG – IN DIFFERENT TIMES
Meanwhile, the prototype of the modern-day Korean flag (oh, I’d like to kindly remind you that there are STILL two Koreas at the time of writing and throughout this book, by default, the word Korea refers to South Korea, but I will expressly indicate whenever I mean to talk about the scary neighbor upstairs) was first devised when Korea was still the Joseon 조선 Dynasty (1392-1897) whose existence was being seriously challenged by Imperial Japan’s active ambition to conquer the Asian region.
In 1882, during the Joseon-U.S. Treaty, the need for a national flag to represent the Dynasty arose, as there wasn’t one to serve the purpose. To rectify the situation, delegate Lee Eung-jun 이응준 took the King’s order to create a national flag, and he did so by modifying the Dynasty’s royal standard, eogi 어기, and it stood side-to-side with the U.S. Flag.
On August 22, 1882, Emissary Park Yeong-hyo rearranged the triagrams and created a scale model of the taegeukgi 태극기 (taegeuk, the red and blue circle found in the center of the flag, meaning “supreme ultimate”, and gi, 기, meaning “flag”, hence “supreme ultimate flag”), and on January 27th, 1883, the Joseon government officially promulgated taegeukgi to be used as the official national flag.
Then the Great Korean Empire Daehanjeguk 대한제국 (1897-1910) was proclaimed in October, 1897 by Emperor Gojong 고종 of the Joseon Dynasty, and the flag continued its service.
During the Japanese occupation (1919-1948), a flag similar to the current South Korean flag was used by the provisional Korean government based in China. Following the establishment of the South Korean state in 1948, the current flag was declared official on October 15, 1949.
The flag, just like the Pepsi logo, has been modified and adjusted throughout history but always maintained its status as a national symbol of Korea, which is why many Korean companies bear the taegeuk symbol as part of their brand identity.
With the brief history session, I hope all the Pepsi-Korea mysteries and conspiracies have been properly debunked and demystified, and we can take a closer look at the Korean flags and learn about what all the symbols represent!
HISTORY OF THE KOREAN FLAG – WHAT DO THE SYMBOLS MEAN?
Let’s start off with the South Korean flag! As we have previously covered, the local nomenclature is Taegeukgi 태극기 (“supreme ultimate flag”), and the dominant color found in the background is white, which represents brightness, purity, and peace, which Korean people fully embraced as values into their lives, to the point where they earned the nickname “white-clad people” baekeuiminjok백의민족 by foreigners, as the color was ubiquitously present in the daily attire hanbok 한복 of the 19th century.
The circle in the center is derived from the traditional philosophy of yin and yang – the red portion represents the positive cosmic forces, and the blue counterpart represents the negative cosmic forces, thereby creating a perfect balance.
In sum, it represents the rules of Mother Nature where the whole creation revolves around the interaction between yin and yang. Lastly, a group of stripes called the trigrams represent the harmony of unity, placed around the yin and yang symbols. Each block of symbols, geon 건, gon 곤, gam 감, and ri 리 (they might not look like they are in the correct order but this is the traditional way), represent the sky, sun, moon, and land, the directions, and the seasons.
HISTORY OF THE KOREAN FLAG – FLAG OF NORTH KOREA
When WW2 ended with the Allied victory in 1945, Japan relinquished its 35-year-long control over the Korean peninsula leading the Soviet Union to occupy the northern half of Korea while the U.S. took control of the southern half, per Allied terms. Trying to instill their socialist ideology, the Soviet Union leaders deemed inheriting the traditional taegukgi inappropriate and decided to design a new flag. Kim Il-Sung 김일성, the then leader of North Korea agreed, and in 1947, a new flag was dictated from Moscow, and the North Koreans named it Ingonggi 인공기, meaning “the flag of the people’s republic”.
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The red star is a symbol of Communism (found on the flags of many other Communist countries such as the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and China), and people’s happy prospects. The white circle in the background represents the universe. The dominant red color represents the revolutionary spirit and path to Communism while blue represents the nation’s commitment to peace and friendship (hm… really?). Finally, the white stripes represent the purity of the North Korean ideology, as well as strength and dignity.
All right! So that pretty much covers the ideas and meanings behind the symbols of the flags of both Koreas, and I hope it was a nice introductory session to get a glimpse of the Korean ideology!