Evolution of Modern Taekwondo and the Crucial Role Played by Gen. Choi Hong-hi

How the Korea Taekwondo Association, the International Taekwondo Federation and the World Taekwondo Federation Were Born!

Because of its status as the Korean national martial art, taekwondo has always been a victim of politics. Polarized views on the art make it nearly impossible to write objectively either about it or the life of its founder Gen. Choi Hong-hi. Many published sources appear biased and reflect their author's organizational membership and political leaning rather than the objective truth.

One of the greatest taekwondo controversies revolves around Choi himself. While some sources recognize him as the art's father and founder, others do not acknowledge him at all. It appears that although his actual contributions to taekwondo are debatable, his influence on the development of the art cannot be ignored.

The Occupation

Choi was born November 9, 1918 by the lunar calendar (December 22 by the Gregorian calendar used in the West) in Hwa Dae, a town now located in North Korea. Even though at the time only 13 percent of Korean children attended school, he received an exceptional education. "My family, particularly my father and older brother, not only encouraged my education but also supported it wholeheartedly," Choi said.

For the first few years of his schooling, Choi attended regular classes and studied calligraphy with a private tutor. At age 12, he was expelled from school for staging an anti-Japanese protest. For the next seven years, the boy studied with Han Il-dong, a famous Korean calligrapher. Choi credited Han with introducing him to tae kyon, a traditional Korean martial art that focuses on kicking.

Gen. Choi Hong-hi (left) (Photo courtesy of Robert Wheatley)

Herb Perez, an Olympic taekwondo gold medalist and martial arts researcher, argues that tae kyon was unlikely to have survived long enough for Choi to come into contact with it. Perez also doubts that Han would have practiced the art because of its low status in Korean society at the time.

"Master Han Il-dong was not a martial arts instructor," Choi replied, "but a teacher of calligraphy who sometimes spoke about a tale of bravery, thus mentioning tae kyon, which is a primitive martial art of our ancient country."

In 1938 Choi traveled to Japan to further his education. He first entered a Japanese high school and later the law school of Choong Ang University in Tokyo. He graduated in 1943. During those six years in Japan, Choi learned karate from Gichin Funakoshi, among others. In fact, after he received his second-degree black belt, he taught the art at the Tokyo YMCA.

World War II

In 1943 Choi, along with numerous other young Korean students, was forced to join the Japanese army. He traveled to Pyongyang, the current capital of North Korea, to complete his military training. At that time, Choi and his fellow soldiers — all of whom were former students of his — organized the Student-Soldiers' Independence Movement.

When the group was ultimately exposed, Choi was arrested and tried. He was confined to a solitary cell in Pyongyang prison, with no possibility of communicating with the outside world. To take advantage of his dire situation, Choi began practicing his karate moves, and soon his Japanese guard was practicing karate alongside him.

Tae kyon is still taught in South Korea. (Photo by Robert W. Young)

Choi's seven-year sentence was later changed to a death sentence. The defeat of the Nazis and later the Japanese in 1945 was the only thing that saved his life.

The Korean Army

After the defeat of Japan, Korea regained its independence but was separated into two regions: North and South Korea. Reflecting the ongoing global struggle between Communist and anti-Communist forces, the Soviet Union administered the Japanese surrender in the North and the United Nations administered it in the South.

On January 15, 1945, the Republic of Korea established its armed forces. Choi, one of the army's 110 founding fathers, later became a second lieutenant and was placed in command of the Fourth Regiment in Kwangju City. As a landmark of his rapid and successful military career, Choi attained the rank of major general in 1954. He later became the director of intelligence for the Korean army, created the 29th Infantry Division and briefed Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

Choi has repeatedly stressed the importance of his high military rank in the development and popularization of taekwondo. On the other hand, his involvement in the military and politics led him to create numerous enemies — a few of whom would eventually drive him into retirement from the army and exile from Korea.

Birth of Modern Taekwondo

Upon becoming a second lieutenant in the army, Choi made martial arts training mandatory for his regiment. At first, his soldiers practiced karate, but Choi soon realized that the people of a newly liberated country should not be forced to learn their recent oppressors' art. That notion, Choi said, spurred him on to research and master a set of unique movements and patterns.

Between 1946 and 1954, he developed basic taekwondo techniques that reflected Asian and Korean history and philosophy, as well as scientific principles of movement.

Taekwondo researcher and Olympic gold medalist Herb Perez

Herb Perez and other taekwondo historians have frequently challenged Choi's declaration about the distinctive character of early taekwondo. They argue that taekwondo's patterns, training and competition format were akin to those of Japanese karate. Taekwondo's uniqueness, according to Perez, was achieved when "it evolved away from karate as it developed from a martial art of self-defense into a modern system of competitive sparring."

Such evolution is a requirement for any martial art if it's to become a mainstream sport, Perez claimed.

Choi admitted to having started his taekwondo research by reviewing Japanese karate and other martial arts, but he denied any resemblance between karate and taekwondo. "Taekwondo did not evolve from karate at all," he argued. "Taekwondo has some 3,200 fundamental movements, plus some 7,000 of nomenclature and terminology which I created, and it is unique. Karate mainly moves forward, whereas taekwondo moves [in] all directions — right and left, forward and backward."

The newer, competition-oriented style of taekwondo, Choi said, is not true taekwondo.

Philosophical Foundation

Taekwondo's sophisticated ideological foundation has roots in Asian morality, the writings and teachings of Confucius, Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Choi's personal philosophy. Many practitioners believe that the spiritual attributes of taekwondo have contributed much to its worldwide popularity.

After World War II, when traditional Western values and religions were challenged, a search for alternative beliefs became imminent, and taekwondo's rigorous philosophy looked attractive and suitable to fill the existing gap. Taekwondo was appealing because it advocates perfecting the mind and body by uniting them with beauty and spirit. Such efforts at attaining individual perfection should, in turn, produce an ideal society.

Official Recognition

On April 11, 1955, Choi called a meeting of the most influential members of Korean society and the military. His goal was to consolidate the emerging martial art under the name "taekwondo." Choi explained the term's meaning as the "art of kicking and punching."

Gen. Choi Hong-hi (Photo courtesy of Robert Wheatley)

There was some opposition from those who favored other names, like tang soo do or kong soo do,but finally everyone present agreed to accept the new name. After further debate, the name also was approved by the President of South Korea. Despite the agreement, the new martial art was not uniformly referred to as taekwondo until 1959.

Growing Popularity

In 1959 a taekwondo demonstration team led by Choi was invited to Vietnam and the Republic of China (Taiwan). The importance of the trip was twofold: First, it inaugurated a long series of visits that would popularize taekwondo around the world. Choi often mentioned the important role his military rank and influential friends played in arranging such events and organizing interviews with political dignitaries in the host countries.

Second, the fact that a Korean martial art was becoming increasingly popular around the world brought great satisfaction to many Korean nationalists — Choi included.

Despite the 1955 agreement to unify the nascent Korean martial art under the name "taekwondo," as late as 1959 some military and civilian schools continued to use different names. At a meeting in 1959, everyone finally accepted the new moniker. The Korea Taekwondo Association with Choi as its president was formed at that meeting, but the political instability of 1960 and 1961 and further disagreements within the organization postponed its official registration until 1965.

The Park Regime

In 1961 South Korean President Syngman Rhee was overthrown in a coup d'état organized by a group of influential generals, one of whom was Choi. A general named Park Chung-hee, the leader of the coup, became the new President. Choi said he was tricked into supporting Park and that he never really approved of his politics. The disagreement between Park and Choi led to the latter's forced retirement from the army.

Choi was appointed ambassador to Malaysia in 1962 and had to leave Korea before he could finalize the registration of the Korea Taekwondo Association. During his time in Malaysia, the name of the art was changed to tae soo do and officially registered as such.

As ambassador, Choi arranged taekwondo demonstrations in Malaysia and its neighboring countries. Just as had happened previously in Vietnam and Taiwan, Korean instructors were invited to teach in Malaysia and other countries, and soon national taekwondo associations were formed there.

Gen. Choi Hong-hi signs a copy of his book. (Photo courtesy of Robert Wheatley)

All along, Choi had been working on introducing new taekwondo patterns and preparing the first edition of his textbook, which was later developed into a 15-volume encyclopedia.

When Choi returned to Korea, the Tae Soo Do Association was operating officially as a member of the Korea Sports Union. In a cunning move, Choi joined the existing organization and became its president. Soon thereafter, he suggested changing the organization's name. One vote decided the outcome of that meeting: The Korea Taekwondo Association was officially formed in 1965.

International Taekwondo Federation

On March 22, 1966, representatives of nine countries met in Seoul to form the International Taekwondo Federation. Choi was elected president. That act launched the next series of trips, which popularized the art in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Within two years, the ITF had signed up 30 member countries. Simultaneously, the president of Korea nominated Kim Un-yong as the next president of the KTA. From then on, conflicts and disagreements between the KTA and the ITF intensified. Constant government interference into the ITF's affairs, as well as the adverse political situation in Korea, led Choi to consider leaving his homeland.

Exile in Canada

Choi left Korea in 1971. At first, he was allegedly being persuaded to return, but later those urgings turned to threats. According to Choi, the Korean government went as far as to kidnap his children. Choi, however, declared that taekwondo was the most important mission of his life and remained in Canada.

Taekwondo sparring at Kukkiwon, South Korea

When all attempts to force Choi to return failed, the World Taekwondo Federation was formed in 1973 in South Korea, with Kim Un-yong at the helm. Afterward, the WTF and ITF competed against each other to win converts in the international martial arts arena.

The actions of Korean intelligence operatives also allegedly targeted Choi's Korean instructors in foreign countries. As a result, many returned to their homeland and joined the WTF.

A new opportunity opened for Choi in 1982, when his taekwondo demonstration team was invited to North Korea. The trip was a great success and resulted in intensive training and testing of a new cadre of North Korean instructors.

The Olympics

Over the years, both the WTF and the ITF tried to secure international recognition and support. The WTF was strongly supported by South Korean political leaders, while the ITF relied exclusively on its members. During the International Olympic Committee's meeting in Moscow in 1980, the WTF was recognized. As a result, the WTF style of taekwondo became a demonstration sport at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games.

In 1994 taekwondo was announced as a full Olympic sport, and it appeared as such in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Growing Pains

A central issue dividing the WTF and the ITF is the role of sparring, patterns (forms) and training philosophy. The WTF places greater emphasis on sparring and competition. The ITF, however, does not allow full-body contact but stresses moral philosophy instead, Choi said.

Jhoon Rhee (left) and Gen. Choi Hong-hi (right) (Photo by Reni)

Choi was always reluctant to accept the increasing role of sparring in modern training. He argued that the lethality of certain taekwondo techniques should limit competition to non-contact sparring and breaking. Choi also opposed the introduction of sparring gear, which was pioneered by Jhoon Rhee in the United States in the 1960s. Different philosophies of sparring resulted in separate championships for WTF and ITF students.

Differences between the WTF and the ITF will probably remain difficult to overcome — especially because state, national and personal interests and animosities often overrule even the best intentions.

About the author: Monika Szumowska is a freelance writer based in Sparks, Nevada.

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