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."

Herb Perez
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."

Bobby Stone
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."

Rondy McKee
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."

Andrew Trento
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

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To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!

In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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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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