In one of the many overtures of peace agreed upon by Seoul and Pyongyang ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a reunification flag took the place of the North and South Korean national flags at the opening ceremony on Friday. The symbolism of the flag, which was carried by the joint Korean delegation as it marched, is not subtle. It depicts a united Korean peninsula in a soft pastel blue against an expansive white background—a color motif that suggests peace and hope, and is most famously featured in the flag of the United Nations. At these games, the flag represents Seoul’s hope for mending long-curdled relations with the Pyongyang.
In the messy history of inter-Korean relations, the unification flag’s purpose has more or less remained the same. Debuted by the joint Korean table tennis team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and subsequently unfurled at international sporting events like the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, the flag is an international affirmation of shared Korean kinship, a concept known as minjok.
The flag’s message, however, belies the heated controversy surrounding its use. It has drawn the ire of South Korean conservatives, who have criticized it for undermining South Korea’s big moment as host to the Olympics. In more colorful displays of protest, far-right conservative groups have burned it, alongside the North Korean flag and a photograph of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Japan, too, has joined in, though for different reasons. After Japanese officials voiced their disapproval over a version of the flag that included islands Seoul and Tokyo both lay claim to, the South Korean government eventually agreed to use an altered design that does not depict the disputed territory.