World’s flags take the spotlight in Pyeongchang

Five rings

The national flag of South Korea with the Olympic flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Village. The Olympic flag was designed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, in 1913, but it only officially debuted at the Summer Games of 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium. The rings represent the world’s five inhabited continents, but their colors were chosen by Coubertin because all of the world’s flags at the time could be made from them (including the white of the background.)

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One flag

South Koreans wave unification flags as North Korean athletes arrive in Busan, South Korea, for the 2002 Asian Games. The Korean Unification Flag was first used in 1991, and has been used by the two nations at the opening ceremonies of the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympic Games.

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Two triangles

The flag of Nepal, seen here at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, is the only non-quadrilateral national flag in the world. It is composed of two combined triangles, and it’s the only national flag that is flown at Olympic parades of nations in a format other than a rectangle.

Credit: DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The square ones

Only two national flags are perfect squares: Switzerland, shown here, and Vatican City.

“But you rarely see that shape (of the Swiss flag). You’ve got the official shape and then what people actually make it, and you quite often see a Swiss flag made to be rectangular,” said Bartram.


Mother of all flags

The flag of Norway, by complete coincidence, contains the flags of Indonesia, Poland, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Thailand, which has earned it the nickname “mother of all flags.”

The AK-47

The flag of Mozambique includes an AK-47 rifle as a reference to the country’s difficult transition to independence.

“Mozambique was a Portuguese possession, and the Portuguese did an appalling job of decolonization. It was utterly unforgivable. As a result, Mozambique had a very bloody start as an independent country, and the rifles they used were AK-47s because they were cheap and available. When they achieved independence and set up their government, they put it on their flag as a symbol of their struggle,” said Bartram.

Other national flags include images of weapons too. “Guatemala has crossed rifles, Haiti has cannons. You do get some weird things on flags, but as long as they make sense to the people the flag belongs to, that’s what counts.”

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Reversed flag?

Is the US flag on military uniforms reversed when it is placed on the right shoulders of soldiers? “It isn’t. You’re just seeing the other side of it. If you imagine someone carrying a flag on a pole, and marching forward, that’s the way the flag flies. The front edge of the flag goes at the front. If you did it the other way, it would look like the troops were marching backwards. On the American flag this looks obvious, but the British do it too and it’s just more subtle due to the design of the flag,” said Bartram.

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The tallest flagpole

A 525-foot flagpole towers over the North Korean village of Kijong, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. The village itself is designed to convey an idyllic image of North Korea, and some of the buildings are thought to be just facades. In the 1980s, South Korea erected a 323-foot flagpole, to which the North responded with one of their own, the tallest in the world at the time.

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White flag

The white flag was recognized as a symbol of truce in the Hague Convention on land warfare of 1907, and anyone carrying a white flag must not be fired upon. But why white?

“Probably because that’s the one sort of thing that you’d actually have available. If you made purple the color of surrender, that would be tricky, but a white cloth is always around — a handkerchief, a vest. It doesn’t even need to be white, it just needs to be undyed cloth, and that’s usually easy to find,” said Bartram.


War signal

The Filipino flag is the only one that is flown differently in times of peace and war, with the blue at the top when the nation is not in a state of war. This led to an international faux pas in 2010, when the flag was flown upside down during an event in New York.

No change

In 2016, New Zealand held a referendum to change its national flag, which includes the British Union Flag and was deemed to be too similar to Australia’s. Pitted against the winning design from a preliminary referendum (center in the photo), the old flag won the popular vote with 56.6%.

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Hawaiian Jack

The Union Flag, or Union Jack, is the national flag of the United Kingdom and is present in many other national flags, including Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Fiji and Bermuda. It’s also part of the state flag of Hawaii (below in the photo), as the islands were once associated with the British Empire. It is the only US state flag to incorporate a foreign flag.

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Ethiopian influence

The flag of Ethiopia was the first to feature the pan-African colors red, green and gold, which were then picked up by Ghana.

“That was deliberate, as Ethiopia was the only sub-Saharan African country that wasn’t colonized. When Ghana became independent, the first sub-Sarahan country to do so, it chose to use Ethiopia’s colors as a basis for their flag because of its continuing Independence,” said Batram. The colors were subsequently adopted by several other African countries.

Oldest flag?

Flags are among the world’s oldest designs, and many countries have a claim for the world’s oldest flag, including Denmark, which maintains its flag originated in 1219.

“But the claim is based on a legend, and other countries also have legends that say where their flags came from, like Scotland and Austria. The problem is that they’re legends, and there’s not really any documentary evidence,” said Bartram.

Denmark, though, does hold the Guinness World Record for the oldest continuously used national flag (since 1625).

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Stars, not states

The stars in the European Union flag do not represent the member states. The number is fixed at 12, and never updated. “Technically it doesn’t even represent the European Union, since it was originally the flag of the Council of Europe. It wasn’t invented by the EU, and the stars are there because 12 is a nice number, with no political connotations,” said Bartram.

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Identical (or not)

The only two virtually identical flags are Chad and Romania (the blue strip of Chad’s flag is darker than that of Romania’s) but others are quite similar.

The unexplored continent

Bartram designed an unofficial flag of his own for Antarctica: “It was more of an accident than a plan. I was working on an electronic atlas of the world and each country had a national flag, except Antarctica. Antarctica is disputed, as several countries have claims to bits of it, so I needed to come up with something politically neutral. I followed the UN’s (flag) model: a light blue flag and a map on top of it, just like the Korean Unification Flag, but with colors reversed. It also helps that Antarctica is mainly white and it sits on a blue thing”, he said.

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