Three experts — the legendary Hee-Il Cho, the ATA's G.K. Lee and the 1992 Olympic gold medalist Herb Perez — weigh in on how taekwondo has changed since it joined the largest sporting event in the world.

Whenever art becomes sport in an artificially short amount of time, some people are pleased while others cry foul. That’s exactly what happened when some practitioners of the martial art of taekwondo embarked on a mission to gain entry into the Olympics: It left some taekwondo stylists with a new raison d’etre, while plenty would argue that the Korean system of self-defense lost much of its real-world effectiveness. In Part 2 of this series on the Olympic Games, we focus on taekwondo. Our featured experts are luminaries in the field: Hee-Il Cho, G.K. Lee and Herb Perez.

— Editors

Hee-Il Cho (Photo by Robert Reiff)

ART: TAEKWONDO ADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 1988 EXPERT: Hee-Il Cho, ninth dan, Black Belt’s 1989 Co-Instructor of the Year and 2012 Man of the Year QUESTION: Have the Olympics altered the way taekwondo is taught? HEE-IL CHO: Many schools have changed because taekwondo is in the Olympics. However, many schools have stayed on the traditional teaching path. It often depends on the instructor’s age and point of view. Younger instructors may have had exposure only to the World Taekwondo Federation, which means there’s a new generation of WTF instructors and students who are more geared to the Olympic-sport style of taekwondo. At my school, we prefer to teach a combination of both styles. We do not gear our program specifically to the Olympics. Instead, we use a teaching style designed to give maximum benefit to the students. QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed from a martial art to a martial sport since 1988? HEE-IL CHO: In many ways, taekwondo has changed into an Olympic competition. Many technical advantages have evolved because of the competitive nature of practitioners around the world. Every country wishes to win a gold medal, and therefore many techniques have come about which are specifically geared to Olympic rules. These techniques, however, may not be the most effective for self-defense. For instance, because of Olympic rules, hand techniques in taekwondo have diminished while high kicks have flourished. QUESTION: Have the Olympics helped or hurt taekwondo overall? HEE-IL CHO: The sport of taekwondo has grown immensely in popularity since Olympic recognition. Countries that were never exposed to it now are aware of it. Taekwondo is recognized throughout the world. There have been many positive effects, but there are also some traditional aspects and values that have changed. For many people, the goal of training is different now. In the traditional martial arts, the aim is to perfect one’s character. In sport, the aim is to become a champion. The method and the path are not necessarily emphasized because the primary focus is on the quest for victory, which sometimes is sought at any cost. This is where drugs and cheating can come into play. In sport, the goal of winning can overwhelm any moral values that are part of traditional taekwondo such as those reflected in the five tenets. QUESTION: Does the possibility of winning an Olympic medal in taekwondo result in more children enrolling? Silat for the Street is the title of a new online course from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques whenever and wherever you want on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Get more info here! HEE-IL CHO: It might help generate interest among children because they’re able to watch talented participants in the Olympics. In the USA, however, there’s not much fame or recognition because of minimal coverage of taekwondo competition by the media. One Hollywood movie like The Karate Kid generates far more interest in taekwondo than sport competitions do. QUESTION: For children, is it better to learn traditional taekwondo or sport taekwondo? HEE-IL CHO: Traditional taekwondo instills character-building traits like discipline, respect and focus. The child respects the master. In sport taekwondo, often the title of “master” is replaced with “coach.” This can reflect the absence of respect and discipline. Sport taekwondo is highly competitive, and there’s only one fist-place winner, one gold medalist. Second place is barely even recognized. Because of that, the sport aspect of taekwondo appeals to children with exceptional natural talents. In contrast, traditional taekwondo offers success and accomplishments for all levels of skill and natural talent.


G.K. Lee (Photo by Peter Lueders)

EXPERT: G.K. Lee, chief master of the American Taekwondo Association, Black Belt’s 2014 Instructor of the Year QUESTION: Does the ATA teach primarily taekwondo for aspiring Olympians or for people who want to become proficient at self-defense? G.K. LEE: Our main focus is traditional taekwondo — mental and physical self-defense. The ATA does not currently train members specifically for the Olympics, but we do not prohibit it. The ATA could easily adopt an Olympic-coaching system in the future. Since 1996, we have integrated Olympic-style training into our curriculum. We have employed Olympic coaches and provided Olympic-style seminars and Olympic training camps for our instructors and students. QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed since it was added to the Olympic Games in Seoul? Has it become a sport rather than a martial art? G.K. LEE: For some, maybe. But the majority of classes are still being taught by first-generation martial artists who want to keep it traditional. At the ATA, we make certain that taekwondo is a traditional martial art that people can enjoy and practice through old age. Taekwondo hasn’t really become more popular here as a result of the Olympics. Maybe it has in small countries, where they have government support, but not in the United States. Traditional martial arts are not generally supported by governments. QUESTION: Does taekwondo’s inclusion in the Olympics make the art appeal more to the next generation of students? G.K. LEE: Of course. And the ATA would like to develop a world champion or an Olympic medalist. However, we prefer to teach our young competitors that while taekwondo is a set of martial arts skills and life skills that can take them to the Olympics, it’s an art that they can practice long after their competition years are over.


Herb Perez (Photo by Doug Churchill)

EXPERT: Herb Perez, 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Black Belt’s 1992 Male Co-Competitor of the Year QUESTION: What’s your stance on the pre-1988 vs. post-1988 question? HERB PEREZ: Taekwondo has been bifurcated into disparate arts with differing expectations, goals and outcomes. The height of taekwondo as a sport was 1988, maybe with a second crest in 1992. The greatest increases in the skill sets were seen during the years leading up to Seoul and Barcelona — the best players our sport has seen were developed under the rules and objectives used in those Olympic Games. Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path! They were creative players known for their power, speed and ability to transcend the technical parameters of the game. Techniques were rewarded based on power. They were not rewarded if they were not executed properly and with trembling shock. As a result, athletes had to commit in order to score, and they did so knowing they might be knocked out. However, the referees were unable to keep up with the athletes, and there was a fundamental disconnect between the game underway and the results shown on the scoreboard. Spectators and the Olympic hierarchy became disenchanted with the sport and the ability of its referees to conduct fair matches. As a result, electronic scoring was implemented — prematurely. The early versions of the electronic-scoring system were worse than the referees they replaced. The situation was exacerbated by rules that disallowed the correction of false positives. I was chairman of the Education Committee and vice chairman of the Technical Committee, which wrestled with these issues. Dr. Steven Capener and I created a multitier point system that rewarded different techniques with different points. However, it was based on well-executed techniques and power. The intent was to create a merit-based scoring system that depended on technical and power superiority. This has been bastardized, resulting in basically a watered-down version of a bad point-karate event. In fact, I believe that a decent point-karate open-circuit fighter with a little training could win an Olympic medal in one year. QUESTION: Technically, what effect have the Olympics had on taekwondo? Kelly McCann’s Combatives Self-Defense Course, a new remote-learning program from Black Belt, will help you fine-tune your street-defense skills using your tablet or smartphone! HERB PEREZ: There are three versions of taekwondo these days. One is traditional taekwondo, which focuses on fighting and training as they were done before 1992. Another is "traditional taekwondo as a martial art," which is taught by most instructors who are not in the Olympic pipeline. The third is the “electronic-scoring taekwondo.” The shame for the art is that kicking is a superior method for achieving one’s objectives in a fight. The shame for the sport is that kicking is a great base on which to build a competition format. Because of “electronic-scoring taekwondo,” however, fewer people are focusing on developing power and properly executing techniques. QUESTION: With taekwondo going in three directions, how should instructors lead their students? HERB PEREZ: I own and operate four dojang with more than 1,800 members. We teach life-skills development through taekwondo. We believe this is the most important benefit of training. Last year, one of my students was accepted to Stanford University — that is my measure of success. In Part 3, Black Belt will examine how the Olympics have affected wrestling. Read Part 1, which addresses judo and the Olympics, here.
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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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