UNESCO’s International Centre of Martial Arts

The Korean art of tae kyon, shown in Black Belt file photos.

It's a martial arts gem that's not yet well-known. It's an international organization that's trying to bridge the gap between styles, techniques and countries. In addition to striving to do all this, it's a group that's emphasizing the positive values the martial arts teach.

The institution is the International Centre of Martial Arts. Based in Chungju, South Korea, it's organized under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. One of the most prestigious bodies in the world, UNESCO aims to promote peace and security through international cooperation, and supporting the martial arts is now part of that mission.

The International Centre of Martial Arts is a joint effort "under UNESCO and also the Korean government," said Changhee Han, program specialist for the ICM International Cooperation Team.

Although it organizes and hosts seminars, training camps, regional congresses and other activities that pertain to the world's martial arts, the team is endeavoring to spread more than just fighting techniques.

"We are here for helping youth, women [and] disabled people using martial arts, its philosophy [and] its values," Han said. "Values matter for our center. That's the reason of our existence."

Those values, according to the feasibility study report that preceded the establishment of the ICM, include "promotion of peace, establishment of nonviolence, respect toward oneself and others, self-control, fair competition, resilience and respect for cultural diversity."

"We work in the field of education, culture, natural science and communication, and also social and human sciences," Han noted. "I think we have unique expertise in using martial arts as an effective tool to teach youth and women, like self-discipline or fair play or resiliency or admiring for the cultural diversity."

The ICM approach is composed of four parts. "The first one is promoting research and knowledge sharing in the field of martial arts," Han said. "The second is contributing to the relationship between the North and South cooperation, also known as developing countries and developed countries."

The third part is building a world martial arts database, and the fourth is expanding the involvement of youth and women in the arts.

"We are here for helping youth, women [and] disabled people using martial arts, its philosophy [and] its values. Values matter for our center. That's the reason of our existence."

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has put a damper on many of the events and activities the ICM had planned to achieve its goals, with many having been canceled or postponed. However, some events are still taking place. To better understand the scope of the schedule that had been in place — and so you can know what to expect once normal life returns — it's useful to look back at what occurred in 2019.On August 15-21, 2019, the third International Youth Martial Arts Camp took place in Chungju. The ICM invited martial artists between the ages of 15 and 18 from Brazil, Kazakhstan, Korea, Mongolia and Turkey. They trained in tae kyon, ssireum, capoeira, kuresi (a form of traditional wrestling from Kazakhstan), bykh (Mongolian grappling) and even oil wrestling (a style of wrestling that's also Turkey's national sport).

Another major undertaking of the ICM has been promoting the martial arts in Africa through the organization of African Regional Martial Arts Congresses. These events bring together academics, practitioners, students and stakeholders in the martial arts and the sports community in Africa. So far, two have taken place. The first was in Kenya in 2018; it focused on East Africa. The second was in Ghana in 2019; it concentrated on West Africa. Among other topics, both emphasized the promotion of indigenous African martial arts.

A third African Regional Congress was scheduled for Zimbabwe in 2020. It was to have focused on Southern Africa. Unfortunately, all in-person activities were called off because of the pandemic. It's now planned as a virtual event that will happen on November 17-18, 2020. The modified theme, said Han, who served as program specialist for the second African Regional Martial Arts Congress, "will be African youth development and women engagement through martial arts education."

Even though the ICM is forging ahead with its virtual offerings, it's also slowly and safely resuming its in-person functions. On July 20-31, 2020, it organized the fourth Martial Arts Open School Project at the Hyundai Foreign School in Ulsan, South Korea. It included intensive training in taekwondo for youth from multicultural backgrounds, especially those who had never experienced the martial arts. Safety measures meant that masks were mandatory, temperature checks were conducted, hand sanitizer was made available and social distancing was practiced.

Navigating the coronavirus pandemic and the vagaries of world politics that typically affect UNESCO are just two of the challenges that the ICM faces, and it appears to be winning. The martial arts have existed for thousands of years, and it's safe to say that they will continue to meet the needs of people around the world thanks in part to the International Centre of Martial Arts.
For more information, visit unescoicm.org/eng.

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