Flags are one of the most powerful markers of national identity. Flags are flown on public and private buildings. Flags are carried by state sanctioned agents and vehicles, especially during national parades and exhibitions. Flags are an essential element in international diplomacy and yet precisely because they are so powerful (they can indeed stir the passions) they are frequently torn down, burnt and destroyed in violent protest. One only has to think how often we see images of American, Israeli and British flags amongst others being burnt or stamped upon by angry crowds. There is, for example, a tradition of the British flag being burnt and ripped by Argentine protestors in Buenos Aires (often outside the British Embassy) as a result of continued frustration over the British occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas. While such acts go unpunished in Argentina, in Austria the desecration of flags belonging to countries which which Austria maintains diplomatic relations is illegal and carries a potential six-month jail sentence.
When it comes to sporting events such as the Olympics, the importance of flags cannot be under-stated. They are integral to the ceremonial and sporting elements of an Olympiad. The colours and symbols of national flags permeate the uniforms worn by athletes, and are paraded around the stadium during the opening ceremony. They are hoisted again to reflect the nationality of gold, silver and bronze medal winners after each and every event. More informally, they are often draped over the balconies or pinned to the windows by athletes staying at the official accommodation, as we have recently seen in the athletes village in east London. Every Olympic organizer will need a substantial collection of national flags depending on the combination of winners. They are, as Michael Billig recognised, anything but banal. Flagging nationalism is an essential component of the Olympics.
So when the Olympic organisers confused the South and North Korean flags at at the start of a women’s football match on the first day of the sporting events at the 2012 Olympics (and not for the first time in the UK) they not only fell foul of this affective economy surrounding this mega-event but also indirectly touched upon one of the most geopolitically sensitive disputes in the world. This was just the kind of thing that the Olympics organisers had hoped and planned to avoid with a sophisticated system of databases, networks and human cross-checking.
It is worth noting that the Korean flag, with its origins in the 1880s, was banned from being displayed anywhere during the Japanese colonial occupation (1910-1935). After independence, both North and South Korea adopted the Korean flag (Taegukgi) but the North Korean government later (in September 1948) redesigned the flag, incorporating a red star, to more explicitly express their adoption of a communist political ideology. It was a clear statement of intent: North Korea would be developing closer relations with China and the Soviet Union. The flag’s design sought not only to represent communism (the star) but also to symbolise the ideals of sovereignty, revolution and purity via the blue, red and white stripes respectively. A brief “flagpole war” developed between South and North Korea during the 1980s after the South Korean government commissioned and built a 100 metre tall flagpole, capable of carrying a 130kg flag in the demilitarised zone (DMZ). Not to be outdone North Korea responded with a flag weighing 270 kilograms flying from a 160 metre tall flagpole, which was, at the time, the world’s tallest. It has since been outdone by the ‘national flagpoles’ of Azerbaijan (162 metres) and Tajikistan (165 metres).
The 2012 Olympic organisers put the misidentification of North Korea’s flag down to an ‘honest mistake’ caused by human error, but the ensuing drama reminds us that flags have tremendous affective potential. They can and do inspire happiness, hope and pride, but they can also provoke anger and fear. That it took North Korean women’s football team more than an hour to be persuaded back onto the Hamden Park pitch is, under the circumstances, unsurprising. After all North and South Korea sit either side of one of the most heavily militarised borders anywhere in the world and have technically remained “at war” since 1953 (a peace treaty between them was never signed). More recently, South Korean military exercises with the US and North Korea’s pursuance of uranium enrichment has continued to provoke significant cross-border and wider regional tensions.
But it is not the first time a mistake has been made with flags. There are countless incidents involving flags being flown upside down (including that of the United Kingdom). Occasionally these incidents involve neighbours with a tense geopolitical relationship. In June 2010, for example, the Indian flag was flown upside down in Pakistan during a ministerial visit. In September 2010, the US flew the Philippines flag (the Philippines was a former American colony) upside down, thereby signifying that the Philippines was officially ‘at war’. The reason given? An ‘honest mistake’. Sound familiar?
As one enterprising chain of British opticians has humorously urged: “Should have gone to Specsavers”. Might we suggest an MSc in Geopolitics?