The WTF and the ITF Are Talking About Merging, But Can It Actually Happen?
by Terry L. Wilson
Taekwondo has been called the most popular martial art in the world. The majority of the schools in which the Korean art is taught have an affiliation with the World Taekwondo Federation or the International Taekwon-Do Federation.
With the WTF being based in South Korea and the ITF's founder, now deceased, having been exiled from South Korea years ago, it should come as no surprise that the two organizations seldom see eye to eye. The ITF governs its students and instructors using its own rules for fighting and forms. The WTF — which re-branded itself World Taekwondo in 2017 but is still waiting for the abbreviated name to catch on — does the same and it oversees the sporting side of taekwondo, and that gives it great power because of the Olympic connection.
So why aren't the leaders of these two mega-orgs satisfied with living in their own worlds? Why do they even need to talk? Well, it all boils down to audience appeal. When taekwondo debuted in the Olympics as a demonstration sport in 1988 and then an official sport in 2000, it was well-received. Audiences around the world loved the high kicks, which were often coupled with aerial movements to yield nonstop action. It was a fighting fare not offered elsewhere in or out of the Olympics.
In recent Olympiads, however, the excitement has diminished and ratings have declined. ITF and WTF officials attribute that to different reasons, and they offer different solutions to the problems. The one commonality is that people on both sides insist that changes need to be made to recapture the excitement and take it to the next level on television.
Fast-forward to 2018. The world watched as U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un. Following this hint that improved relations between the North and the world might be coming, it was announced that talks were underway in Pyongyang, North Korea, to discuss the notion of merging the ITF and WTF.
To evaluate the potential of this development, Black Belt spoke with six taekwondo insiders. What potential, you say? Think about it. If two governing bodies of what's already perhaps the world's most widely practiced art devise a way to “improve" taekwondo, it could become even bigger as a spectator sport and wield even more power in the martial arts community, as well as in the sports world.
Hee Il Cho
Credentials: Ninth dan, founder of the Action International Martial Arts Association, Black Belt Hall of Famer “Both sides are working together to make taekwondo better for each organization. I like the idea of merging to help both parties, but they have differences. They have different motions in their patterns. Also, their fighting rules are totally different. But if they can come together, it will benefit both organizations. They've been trying to do this for years. They talk about it but never can come to a conclusion on what each organization wants.
“After training and teaching for more than 60 years of my life, why do I need someone's signature on a piece of paper — especially from someone who's never trained in taekwondo or any other martial art? It's all politics. That's why I ask who's going to benefit from the merger. Is it members and people who are training, or will it only benefit the people in charge of the politics?
“The WTF is recognized by the Olympic Committee, so if the ITF wants to be part of that, they must follow the WTF's rules. I don't think the ITF will do that. The ITF wants to wear different equipment, [and] they want to use hands to the face. The WTF has their own rules, their own equipment and wants more kicking to the face and not hands to the face.
“You must also look at the business of running a martial arts school. You have to pay the rent, make a living and support your instructors, too. So merging the WTF and the ITF would have to make good business sense for everyone before it could happen. I think it's almost impossible."
Credentials: 1992 Olympic taekwondo gold medalist, Black Belt Hall of Famer “Every few years, the WTF and the ITF try to combine their organizations in an effort to build taekwondo into a bigger organization than it is with either one of them separately. The WTF is in 204 countries, and because it is an Olympic-movement organization, it's much larger than the ITF. The ITF also has a large body. It has maintained and built its organization around the world, as well. “One of the issues they must deal with is that the WTF is not the certification arm for taekwondo, while the ITF serves both as a certification arm and a competitive arm. The WTF only serves as a competitive arm for taekwondo. It does no education, nor does it do dan certification. However, the ITF does all that plus certification.
“This conversation would have to include Kukkiwon, which is the certification arm for the WTF, and the Olympic movement. Quite frankly, I don't think that Kukkiwon has any interest in doing this. Kukkiwon is located in South Korea, and the initial effort to make the WTF was to exclude the founder of the ITF, who then went to North Korea and Canada to create his organization.
“I'm not sure the [South] Korean government, which does finance Kukkiwon in part, would have any interest in that unless it were to absorb the ITF, and I'm not sure if the ITF would want that."
Credentials: Sixth dan, taekwondo national chairman for the Amateur Athletic Union “[At] the AAU, we work with both groups. We're able to come together, but with the WTF and the ITF, there is the point-versus-sport aspect of their organizations, and I don't know if it's ever going to happen. With that said, if there are enough like-minded people that could get together, there is a chance.
“And there is a generational thing that's going on: People from my generation are stepping into more leadership roles, and you may see some changes come forward later on. But for now, everything is set up where there are different organizations [and] they make different profits.
“Fortunately for us within the AAU, we have been able to do it in a way that works, so maybe use as a model because we have an equal number of ITF and WTF members, along with tang so do people. But it seems that the WTF and the ITF have as much chance of getting together as do our Democrat and Republican parties."
Young Bo Kong
Credentials: Ninth dan, co-founder of Young Brothers Taekwondo Associates, former ITF champion, sent to 127 countries by Gen. Choi Hong-hi to spread taekwondo “To begin with, the WTF must first recognize the ITF, but they have a hard time doing that. The WTF acts like the ITF never existed. Taekwondo was born with the ITF, not the WTF.
“But I think the idea of a merger can be good if both sides can come to an agreement. As for the Olympics, because of the WTF rules, it isn't very popular to watch. They only score with kicks; they are not allowed to punch to the face, and a punch to the body is almost never given a point. Taekwondo means 'way of hand and foot fighting,' but the WTF totally dismisses hand techniques. If the WTF can find a way to incorporate both hands and feet into the way they score, then taekwondo will be much more interesting.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of politics involved. Because of that, a lot of people are worried about holding onto their jobs if the merger would happen. Another problem is that the president of the WTF is only a second-degree black belt, and because the WTF is controlled by the [South Korean] government, everything is political, so they put guys in positions of power that are not qualified. I think it's all about controlling the money that would come in from a merger.
“The Olympic rules don't reflect the spirit of the original concept of taekwondo. They don't allow punching to the face, and taekwondo should be taught as a well-rounded self-defense, which includes kicks and punches along with sweeps, locks and throws. Taekwondo should be practiced as a self-defense and a point-fighting style. Blending the best of the ITF and the WTF will benefit both systems. In this way, everyone will benefit from a merger. But unfortunately, the politics of taekwondo will get in the way."
Credentials: Seventh dan, Kukkiwon-certified testing judge, former member of the Korean Tigers demonstration team “One difference between the WTF and the ITF is the way we spar. The ITF is doing stop-point; they score a point, and the referees stop the action. Whereas in the WTF, we're doing continuous sparring. So we're doing two completely different games. What we do in the WTF seems more realistic in combat because in a real fight, no one is going to stop the motion and regroup.
“The WTF and the ITF have been talking about merging for years, and I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime. As a business owner, I don't want a merger because I'm the only WTF [school] in town, and being the only WTF [school] is a huge part of the way I promote my school.
“I met with the president of Kukkiwon and heard his side of why he wants to merge, and I understand and respect his point of view. He wants taekwondo to be one big family, and I get that. But I'm a business owner, and I don't want to play with others. I think competition makes you better."
Credentials: Fifth dan, clinical administrator for AAU New Jersey, AAU-certified official “It's a good thing that they are at least talking because interactions build actions. Gen. Choi began the ITF in the early '60s. He came up with the name taekwondo and was very adamant about bringing back a nationalistic feel for the country because they were suppressed by Japan for so many years. “At the time, they were calling the martial art they were doing 'Korean karate,' which he absolutely hated. He wanted taekwondo to have its own identify, so he created the forms and wrote an encyclopedia, and when he did a demonstration for then-President Syngman Rhee, he loved it.
“Long story short, Gen. Choi was kicked out and relocated to Canada. Then [Un Yong Kim] came in and created the WTF, which brought more of a sport aspect to the art. They added new forms, new rules for fighting and some extreme measures to bring the kwan together. But it wasn't taekwondo; it was something different, but they called it taekwondo. Truth be told, the sport taekwondo that everyone knows today is not the traditional taekwondo that Gen. Choi made.
“So there was a schism between hardcore traditional and sport taekwondo. Sport has its purpose but shouldn't be the entire martial art. The WTF regulates all of the sport activity on a global level, but the ITF's roots are in the traditional fighting art.
“However, a merging of the ITF and the WTF has potential. If the two could come together, it would be a really good balance of the traditional combat martial art and the sport aspect."
Terry L. Wilson is a freelance writer and martial artist based in San Diego