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[Uniquely Korean] Pledging allegiance and saluting the flag

Some argue patriotic demonstration is outdated

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Published : 2014-03-19 20:02
Updated : 2014-04-03 14:33

The pledge of allegiance and ceremonial salute to the national flag are practices commonly seen at Korean schools and events hosted by state organizations. 

The pledge of allegiance reads as follows: “In front of proud Taegeukgi (the national flag), I pledge allegiance to the Republic of Korea to devote myself to the perpetual glory of the free nation.”

The practice has been perceived as a symbol of the national bond and patriotism that helped power rapid economic growth in the aftermath of the Korean War. 

Some economists and experts have said the pledge of allegiance and similar practices have played a role in uniting people, helping the country achieve its fast-paced growth, dubbed the “Miracle on the Han River.”

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (fourth from left) and other government officials and business leaders pledge allegiance to the Korean flag during an event to celebrate the country’s trade and commerce in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Professor Park Hye-ryeon, 55, who believes ceremonial salutes had an economic effect in the post-war era, said that people in her generation had two goals for success: contribute to the country’s economic development and become wealthy.

“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Seoul was an economic wasteland, so to speak. People were poor and struggled with a chaotic situation after the war. What brought them back onto their feet was the belief that going together would bring wealth, not only to the nation but also to individuals,” Park said. 

Until the government abolished the rule in January 1989, Koreans were obliged to stand still – wherever they were and whatever they were doing – when the national anthem was played at 5 p.m. in winter and 6 p.m. in summer. 

People were also required to salute the flag in theaters before the movie started, vowing to devote themselves to the country and the people. 

Nowadays, the customary ceremony is still observed at the beginning of official public events, such as ministerial meetings, morning assemblies at schools, graduation ceremonies and sports events.

The prevailing notions about the practice have also changed over time, rekindling debate among some politicians and activists who have said it is a remnant of military authoritarianism and Japanese imperialism.  

The practice was originally called “gukgi baerae,” meaning bowing toward the flag. It was first adopted by the Japanese army during the colonial period: people had to visit shrines, bow down to the Japanese flag and honor Japan’s patriotic martyrs.

But the format changed in 1949, after the country’s liberation, when a group of 43 students were expelled from school for refusing to bow to the flag. Activists, mostly Christians, stepped up to protest against the ceremonial practice. 

In 1968, an education committee in North Chungcheong Province put out a modern version of the pledge, which was later spread to schools across the nation.

Civic activists had urged the government to entirely abolish the practice, claiming the country should stop forcing people to engage in patriotism through Japanese practices.

In 2007, the government updated the words of the pledge, from “I pledge allegiance to the Republic of Korea to devote my body and soul to the perpetual glory of my country and the people.”

Lim Ji-hyun, a history professor at Hanyang University, wrote in his book “Fascism within Us” that such totalitarian ceremonies are “a regulation that makes people submit to the country, affecting every corner of the society.” 

By Suk Gee-hyun (monicasuk@heraldcorp.com)

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