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Culture of Korea


The flag of South Korea is called Taegeuk or Taegeukgi (태극; pronounced teh-GUK-key). Taegeukgi was created in 1882 but has underwent several design changes since its initial creation. Even so, the symbols of Taegeukgi are among the oldest found on any nation's flag.

The colors of the flag are red, blue, and black on a white background. The color white is a traditional color in Korean culture and symbolizes peace and purity. White was a very common color of attire in Korea during the 19th century. The color of black is used for the four trigrams, each representing a different virtue.

The red and blue circle in the middle of the flag is called taegeuk in Korean which, translated literally, means "supreme ultimate". It is half red and half blue, with blue symbolizing negative cosmic forces (um in Korean; yin in Chinese), while red represents positive cosmic forces (yang). The yang and um together form the to, signifying the perpetually changing opposite yet complementary forces or principles embodied in all aspects of life: light and darkness, good and evil, masculine and feminine. 

The four sets of trigrams further convey the idea of the dualism of the cosmos. Heaven is represented by the three unbroken lines; a set of three broken lines placed opposite represent the earth. The stages between the two extremes of yang and um are represented by the two lines with a broken line between them signifying fire, and the two broken lines with an unbroken line in the middle, water. Together, these four trigrams also symbolize the seasons and the cardinal directions, as well as virtues including humanity, justice, intelligence and courtesy.


The flag of North Korea, or the Korean People's Democratic Republic, is known as the Ramhongsaek Konghwagugki, which translates to mean “red colored flag of the republic.” It is composed of red leaf, fringed with blue lines at the top and at the bottom, which are bordered with white stripes from its inner side. The stripes are said to symbolize patriotism, determination, ethnic purity and unity of the nation. Closer to the left side of the flag, there is a white circle bearing a red five-pointed star. The design of the flag itself indicates that North Korea is a communist country. Though it is believed that this is a political sign, others say that this simply stands for the country’s traditions. 

The flag was adopted in 1948 after the departure of the Soviet troops from the country and it expresses the revolutionary ideas of the North Korean people and its leader Kim Il-sung. The red color refers to the blood shed during the socialist revolution or to patriotism, blue to peace, and white stands for purity and chastity. The colors of the flag are considered to be national colors. Use of the North Korean flag in South Korea is prohibited. There are, however, a few exceptions.

Korean Culture = Han + Heung. Thus, deep sadness (han) and pure joy (heung) are the driving forces behind Hallyu.

Euny Hong, author of the book The Birth of Korean Cool, explains that "Korea has been the whipping boy of fate for five thousand years. The peninsula has been invaded four hundred times in its history, and has never once invaded any other nation, unless you count its participation in the Vietnam War" (Hong, 2014, p.51). The result of this tumultuous history is "a culturally specific, ultra-distilled rage, which Koreans call han" (Hong, 2014, p.52). Koreans have a lot of han which can be found in many aspects of Korean pop culture, especially K-drama.

Arguably, heung can be described as the explosive energy to relieve old grudges and frustrations. Whether it is singing, drinking, or dancing--heung encourages pure joy and happiness when han may become too much to bear.

Another uniquely Korean emotion is called jeong. Jeong characterizes feelings of fondness, caring, and interdependence. In Korea, jeong can be seen through simple acts, such as sharing because "they are my neighbor" or "my classmate" or "my kin". It's knowing that Korean people are connected by a bond that can not be separated. However, jeong isn't always positive. There are plenty of marriages that are without love, but have jeong (and jeong isn't really a matter of choice). There is also miun jeong or hateful jeong, which is the feeling of attachment to someone you dislike. This is sometimes stronger than regular jeong because it is more personal to the person, whereas regular jeong is generalized to larger groups.

Jeong perpetuates the concept of "group mind" in Korea and helps to keep groups together. This collective "I" is called "woori" (우리), which means "we" or "us". Whereas, the opposite is "nam" (남), which means "not us" or "unknown". This struggle between "jeong" and "nam" can cause a divide in Korean society. Thus, it is extremely important for foreigners in Korea to join a group. 

The clip below is from a K-drama called "Reply 1988" and shows jeong amongst neighbors. In Korea, when you receive a food dish from anyone, you should always give one in return.