THE national flag of any country is often flown as a symbol of patriotism.
In South Korea, the same has been the case for decades, with some among the country’s conservatives even viewing the taegukgi – the name of the national flag – as a kind of talisman against communism.
Until recent months, when the Park Geun-hye influence-peddling scandal erupted.
Protests attended by hundreds of thousands of South Koreans saw the taegukgi brandished in countless ways: waved by demonstrators through street marches, sometimes worn like bandanas or painted on banners, and on many occasions, hung on vehicles and pitched outside buildings.
These pro-Park supporters have named their gatherings the “Taegukgi rallies” to symbolise what they say is the true spirit of patriotism, also countering the candlelight protests held by those backing the embattled leader’s ouster.
Last week, however, conservative voices were drowned out by cheers from Park’s detractors when she became the country’s first democratically-elected leader to be removed from office. Park now faces criminal court charges and come May 9, her successor will be named after an election.
As they stand at a crossroad, South Koreans, already divided by the scandal, are now disagreeing over how the taegukgi has come to be associated with Park’s cause.
According to The Korea Times, a recent poll by job portal site Incruit and Dooit Survey revealed that close to half the country’s population at 42 percent have begun to feel “uncomfortable” at the sight of the taegukgi.
The survey released last month ahead of the March 1 Korean Independence Movement Day also found that over 40 percent of 2,702 people surveyed were unwilling to raise the flag at their homes for the holiday.
Picking up on the news, The Economist said such discomfort was unheard of 15 years ago during the 2002 FIFA World Cup when 90 percent of South Koreans said they were proud to fly the taegukgi. Crowds at the games had proudly sported the signature red, blue and white of the national flag as they cheered their country on to the semi-finals.
But the taegukgi has also in the past been used numerous times as political symbols.
On the Korean Independence Movement Day of March 1, 1919, Korean independence fighters waved the taegukgi in defiance as they fought against Japanese occupation. Some two million Koreans participated in demonstrations during that time, marked to this day as the first of many public displays of Korean resistance. As a result, thousands were massacred by the Japanese police force and army.
In 1972, Park’s father South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee made it compulsory for all schoolchildren to recite a pledge of allegiance to the South Korean race to the flag. The pledge was altered in 2007 to one of allegiance to the country.
Today, Park’s supporters have claimed it as a symbol of their fight against her impeachment. And those on the opposite camp are similarly trying to claim it as their own, some seen bringing it with them during the candlelight protests in support of Park’s ouster.
According to The Economist, the disagreement even led the city of Gwangju to break with tradition this year and not hand out flags during the March 1 holiday.
Officials there reportedly “did not want to appear to oppose Park’s impeachment”, the report said.
The Korea Times said the tussle has also led to scenes of the taegukgi being destroyed during protests, creating a negative image of what should be a symbol of patriotism.
To stop the fight from escalating, a member of the National Assembly Kwon Eun-hee of the People’s Party is expected to propose a Bill this month to prevent inappropriate use of the taegukgi.
“The taegukgi, which represents Korea as well as the March 1 Independence Movement, has been used as a tool for protests and has been damaged at the same time, and this is a serious problem,” said the member of the National Assembly Security and Public Administration Committee.
“The revision will define specific activities that impair the dignity of the flag and establish legal grounds for those who violate the regulations,” the lawmaker was quoted saying in The Korea Times.
The local daily said the current law enacted in 2007 currently restricts the flag from being used “in a manner that damages it or causes a sense of repugnance”, but does not propose penalties for offences.
There are also no regulations governing the use of the flag by specific groups.
The Park scandal has been dubbed the mother of all scandals in the East Asian nation’s modern political history. Park stands accused of allowing her long time friend and close confidante Choi Soon-sil, a woman with no security clearance or official government post, interfere in state affairs. Among others things, Choi allegedly exploited her friendship with the president to extort millions from large business conglomerates that were in turn channeled as donations to two charity foundations she headed.