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History of the South Korean flag

Last modified: 2006-09-23 by phil nelson
Keywords: south korea | korea | yin yang | ying-yang | kwae |
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Eight Kwae

I just opened by chance my Crampton's Complete Guide to Flags, 1990 [cra90f], just on the page where Korea is and noticed a sentence that did not sound familiar.

So, it says: South Korea has kept the flag of the former Kingdom of Korea, although it has been modified. ... and the trigrams (kwae) are reduced from eight to four."

So, what was the flag of the Kingdom of Korea with 8 kwaes? When did the change occur?
Željko Heimer, 13 January 1999

Earliest representation Stamp - 19th Century Stamp Detail

[an old Korean flag detail]

[Korean stamp] [Korean stamp detail]
flag image by Antonio Martins-Tuvalkin,
24 September 2003
stamp images contributed by Diedrik Nelson,
20 May 2006

This is perhaps the oldest representation of the South Korean flag.
Patrick Kirol, 11 March 2000

I think the number 8 comes naturally (2x2x2). Either of the three lines in a trigram can be either yin (- -) or yang (---). According to my I Ching, the symbolism is this:

  • yin-yin-yin (K'un) - earth - mother/receptive (lower fly of S. Korean flag)
  • yin-yin-yang (Kn) - mountain - third son/keeping still
  • yin-yang-yin (K'an) - water - second son/abysmal (upper fly)
  • yin-yang-yang (Sun) - wind - first daughter/gentle
  • yang-yin-yin (Chn) - thunder - first son/the arousing
  • yang-yin-yang (Li) - fire - second daughter/clinging (lower hoist)
  • yang-yang-yin (Tui) - lake - third daughter/joyful
  • yang-yang-yang (Ch'ien) - heaven - father/creative (upper hoist)

Ole Andersen, 14 January 1999

Chinese wind rose with 8 kwae
[8 kwae Wind rose]
by Mark Sensen

The I Ching , the "Book of Changes", mentioned by Ole consists of the 64 combinations you get by combining the 8 kwae and was and is used by fortune-tellers to give answers to questions. [Source: Hans Biederman, "Prisma van de symbolen", 1991/1996, Dutch translation of "Knaurs Lexicon der Symbole"]

The flag was first hoisted 22 August 1882 when the first ambassadors were sent to Japan, an adopted officially 27 January 1883. Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905 and annexed on 22 August 1910. After the liberation the country was divided along the 38th degree of latitude. The Republic of Korea was established in the southern (American) zone on 15 August 1948, which readopted the flag in the same year when the colours and shape were established by law. On 25 January 1950 the flag was adopted officially when the kwae were revised slightly. In 1984 the lay-out was again slightly changed. [Sources: Barraclough, Flags of the World 1981 [c2b81]; Whitney Smith, Spectrum Vlaggenboek, 1976 [smi76a]; Kent Alexander, Flags of the World, 1992.] [ale92]
Mark Sensen, 14 January 1999

This was done eight months before independence by General MacArthur.
[Source: H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World, 1956. [car56]]

I forgot to mention the flag is known as T'aeguk or "Great Polarity".
[Source: William Crampton, The World's Flags, 1990 [cra90c].]
Mark Sensen, 14 January 1999

Korea, 1893

Korea, 1893 Royal Korean Consulate in Hamburg 1893
[Korean flag, 1893] [1893 Korean consulate flag]
images by Antonio Martins

I have a photocopy of an article by H.G. Strhl called "Wappen und Flagge von Korea" in Herold, Oct. 1893, nr. 10, XXIV. It shows two flags. The first is labeled "Koreanische Flagge" and is like the modern flag, but the yin-yang - sign is much more intricate and the upper part is blue, the lower blue. According to the text normally only the 4 main kwae appear on the flag, most of the time blue. It also says that the arrangement of the kwae is not always the same. The second flag shown is the one flown at the Royal Korean Consulate in Hamburg, and has 8 kwae, coloured yellow. The yin-yang - sign is like on the modern flag, but rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise. I have some doubts if the arrangement of these 8 kwae is correct, since two opposing kwae are not each others inversion. On the image of an old Chinese wind rose shown in the article they are inverted, so maybe that arrangement is more correct.
Mark Sensen, 14 January 1999

It is interesting to note that the flag called the Royal Korean Consulate flag has a different arrangement of the trigraphs. I have noticed that the Koreans are very exact in describing the layout of their flag (10:15). Yet the flag that is flown on holidays is not of the same proportions as that shown in the official description of their flag, the main difference being the addition of extra white to the field of the flag on the side away from the flag pole. The additional material gives the flag the same length as the US flag (10:19).

The ordering of the trigrams in the tooth edge flag matches that of the Hou Tian (latter heaven) ordering of the trigrams of the Chinese Yi Ching.
Patrick Kirol, 11 March 2000

During the Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) the Korean t'aeguk circle flag was prohibited to use.

The Japanese governor of Korea's flag was used that is light blue flag with Japanese national flag (hinomaru) in a canton like British blue ensign despite of a different color shade. The canton is one fourth of whole flag in size. The light blue stands for justice, fairness and philanthropy.


Korea used a similar flag to present flag. The t'aeguk is longer than current one and colour was reverse: blue over red. The black four trigrams are placed in differently: There were two broken and one unbroken lines in upper left/ three unbroken lines in upper right/three broken lines in bottom left/one broken and two unbroken lines in bottom right.


An old Japanese flag book published in 1876/1854 shows square yellow flag with red rugged border as a Korean King's standard. The flag bears a green dragon having red tongue and gray clouds.
Nozomi Kariyasu, 21 March 1999

The early history of the Korean national flag seems to have remained rather obscure, according to a paper by Elizabeth Pyon published on-line in the Korea Herlad, 18 December 2001.

The paper reports recent findings on the invention of the first Korean national flag, which seem to disagree with the traditional explanations. The research was done by Dr. Kim Sang-Sup, a "reformist" researcher specialized in the Yi-ching. Dr. Kim based his conclusions on several historical official documents of the end of the 19th century.

The national Korean flag was used for the first time by a Korean diplomatic mission sent to Japan in 1882. This was the first diplomatic mission ever sent by Korea. King Gojong ordered the Chief of the delegation, Prince Pak Yeong-Hyo, to hoist the Korean national flag on the vessel used by the mission. These are historical facts. Moreover, it is often said that King Gojon himself designed the flag in the beginning of the 1880s. He wanted to express his resistance to foreign influence and his willing to preserve the independence of his Kingdom.

Unfortunately, this theory is not backed up by any serious evidence. The historical records studied by Dr. Kim give a completely different history.

In 1875, a Japanese fleet sailed too close to the Ganghwa Island and had an altercation with the Korean army. The Koreans shot the Japanese flag. This was used as a pretext by the Japanese army for a retaliation campaign. Before this event, there was little interest in Korea for a national symbol. King Gojong asked his suzereign, the Emperor of China, for advice on the question of the flag. Chinese experts suggested a flag similar to the Chinese flag of the time, a dragon with five claws on a yellow background. The Korean court, however, rejected the proposal of a dragon with four claws on a blue background, which was considered "too sophisticated".

In April 1882, an official Korean-Chinese meeting was held to discuss the question of the Korean flag. The "teaguk" emblem was proposed for the first time during this meeting. Official documents of the Korean Royal court state that the Chinese delegate Ma Chien-Chung promoted the use of the Yin-Yang spiral in red and blue and eight combinations of the Yi-ching, and imposed his views to the Korean delegate Kim Hong-Jip. Ma Chien-chung explained the symbolism of his proposal. The eight Yi-ching diagrams matched the eight Korean provinces, and red was the colour of the King whereas blue was the colour of ordinary people. Korea eventually adopted its flag under Chinese pressure and used it for its first diplomatic mission as said above.

The first version of the "taeguk" was very close to the original Yi-Ching diagram, which includes eight subdiagrams. The deletion of four of these subdiagrams is reported in the diary of Prince Pak Yeong-Hyo. The Prince showed the original flag design to James, the British captain of the vessel used for the mission. James found the design too complicated and proposed to delete four of the eight Yi-Ching diagrams.
Ivan Sache, 15 August 2002


"Discovery of Old Flag Discredits 'Taegukgi' Legend
by Yu Seok-jae

The oldest picture of a "Taegukgi," the national flag of Korea, has been discovered, giving insight into how the flag's symbols came to be used. The Taegukgi was found in the "Flags of Maritime Nations," issued by the U.S. Navy Department's Bureau of Navigation in July 1882, and with its red and blue yin-yang symbol and four black trigrams has the same form as the current Korean flag. This Taegukgi would be two or three months older than the one used by Park Yeong-hyo, who is known as the first to make and use a four- trigram flag. Park did so during a diplomatic mission to Japan from August to September of 1882.oldest Taegukgi, the national flag of Korea, was found. This version is listed in `Flags of Maritime Nations,' published by the Bureau of Navigation at the U.S. Navy Department in July 1882. This version uses the four trigrams from the Book of Changes. Until now, Park Yeong-hyo was known as the first person to use four trigrams from the Book of Changes. The flag was published two or three months before Park moved to Japan.

contributed by Jan Mertens, 20 August 2004

Note: bibliographic information on the Flags of Maritime Nations is at [usn82]


[Korean flag, circa 1905]
contributed by Jarig Bakker

In The International Geography, London, 1911, I found this flag - the old flag of Korea, before it was occupied by Japan in 1905. Korea ceased to exist until 1947, after which a lot of things happened.

However the 'old Korean flag' differs in several respects from the present South Korean flag:

  1. The 4 I-ching signs are arranged differently
  2. They are colored blue in stead of black.
  3. The Yin-Yang - sign is much more intricate.

I scanned the flag. Perhaps someone can tell us more about the 8 kwaes?
Jarig Bakker, 14 January 1999

The Korean flag was slightly changed in 21 February 1984, but the disposition of the ying yang seems strange (left blue, right red instead red over blue). I checked some plates pre-1984 and in all the plates the flag is red over blue. The flag was not adopted until 1950 but was in use de facto after 1945; perhaps the design posted is derived from the designs used from 1945-50,
Jaume Oll, 31 December 1998

Flag seen on TV Program M*A*S*H

[Korea, 1952 flag]
image by David Kendall

I saw on TV recently what seems to be the first flag of the Republic of Korea. This was on the TV show M*A*S*H, a show from the 1970s, but set in the times of the Korean War. The flag references they have (the show is set on a US Army medical base) are quite accurate (i.e. a 48-star flag flies over the compound, along with a UN and S. Korean flag), so I don't doubt the authenticity of the flag. The flag was shown in a good shot in the episode "Welcome to Korea" (season opener of season 5. The major differences: the four corner elements are smaller and closer to the corner, and the ying-yang is on its side. The ying-yang also appeared to be drawn differently, but I couldn't get a clear enough shot of it to tell for sure how it appeared.
David Kendall, 29 December 1998

Post 1984

[South Korean flag]
image by Željko Heimer