Stepping into the history of Tae Kwon Do

by Jack Graber

For my black belt essay I wanted to delve into the history of Tae Kwan Do and more specifically the history of the association, Moo Duk Kwan. I started searching on the internet for sources with a depth of information. Eventually, that search came up with the same short story repeated. The history on the Mountain Academy site is a good source ( but I still wanted more information. I searched the local library and found a book that sounded like an interesting step into the history. The book, A Killing Art The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, is a much different story than I was expecting and am glad I stumbled upon it.

The book follows two men and the two international federations for Tae Kwan Do. The first man is Choi Hong-Hi. Choi Hong-Hi began his martial arts career in the late 1930s in Japan while attending school. He began studying Karate in Japan to defend himself against bullying by the Japanese (Korea was occupied by Japan at the time and Koreans were subject to intense abuse by Japanese) and eventually to defend himself against a pro wrestler from his home town that he had stolen from during a night of playing poker. Choi obtained a second degree black belt before returning to his home. And he did not have to face the wrestler because he was seen kicking trees and smashing roof tiles. The wrestler heard he was practicing Karate and could kill with one blow, so avoided him from then on.

After World War II Choi was a second lieutenant in the Korean army and had been teaching his soldiers Karate. He decided to start developing his own version of the martial art because Karate was Japanese and Korea was now free of the Japanese oppression. Later Choi became a general and summoned Nam Tae-Hi to train the men under Choi’s command. Nam was a war hero and Tang Soo Doo expert. Together General Choi would envision and Nam would make the vision reality, creating the new martial art. A demonstration for the president of South Korea by General Choi’s men, including Nam Tae-Hi, led to the martial art being required training in the military. The martial art had not been named though. It could not be Tang Soo Doo (Korean Karate) because of the ties back to Japan that created. General Choi and Nam introduced a new name Tae Kwon Do and eventually convinced the president to officially adopt the name. Choi went on to write books on Tae Kwon Do, heavily borrowing from Karate, but making important improvements and innovations such as the “Theory of Power.” Choi used physics to formulate the energy resulting from punch or kick and showed that because of speed a smaller faster person could defeat a bigger slower opponent. Choi would eventually become the President of the Korean Tae Kwan Do Association, formed to unify some of the styles and organization. Choi later launched the International Taekown-Do Federation (ITF) in the mid-1960s.

The other man deeply entrenched in the history of Tae Kwan Do is Kim Un-yong. Kim entered into the world of Tae Kwan Do while stationed in the United States as a diplomat at the South Korean embassy in Washington D.C. He was also part of the Korean CIA which was entangled in Tae Kwan Do. Tae Kwan Do was an important political asset as it was improving the image of Korea in the world. Kim Un-yong claims to have been involved financially and organizationally with getting schools and competitions setup, although there is not any proof of this presented. Kim did befriend one of the leading Korean instructors in the US at the time, Jhoon Rhee. Rhee was very successful opening schools and training many champions. In 1970 Kim was working with a security force for the President of South Korea. Tae Kwon Do was struggling with power issues between Choi and other martial arts leaders. The position of President of the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association (KTA) was vacant and Kim Un-yong was appointed as president of the KTA.

The KTA and ITF were in direct competition trying to be the dominant association in Tae Kwan Do, with General Choi leading the ITF and Kim Un-yong leading the KTA. There were many political ties in the organizations, notably South Korea tied to KTA and North Korea loosely tied to the ITF. The Korean CIA had many operatives that were high ranking Tae Kwan Do instructors, and used in many operations. There were large operations in the US and Europe that involved influencing politicians and silencing opponents. General Choi eventually fled Korea for Canada to try to escape political issues. Kim remained in South Korea raising money for the KTA. He spearheaded a project to build the Kukkiwon, a world headquarters for Tae Kwon Do. He had the backing of the government and was able to unite the original nine kwans (martial-arts gyms) by force. Requiring them to conduct Tae Kwan Do business through the Kukkiwon as well as do all black belt promotions at the Kukkiwon. Part of the KTA was transformed into the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) following the uniting of the kwans. Now Kim’s goal was to globalize the WTF.

The next battle ground was the Olympics. North and South Korea wanted to show the world that they were capable world powers. Hosting the Olympics was a goal that they felt would show the world they were that. It was by no means a friendly sharing of the Olympic responsibilities though. Choi had been also working on the Olympic Committee to get Tae Kwon Do into the Olympics. Kim and Choi both talked about a joint event between the two associations that at least looked good. Kim was a much better diplomat than Choi and he succeeded with introducing the UTF flavor of Tae Kwan Do into the Olympics. In addition Kim became a member of the International Olympic Committee. From then on the UTF Tae Kwan Do was what was seen in the Olympics. Eventually, Kim’s reign ended when he was found guilty of embezzling and accepting bribes which landed him in jail with fines in excess of $600,000.

General Choi continued to champion the ITF and continuously push for the ITF to be the dominant force in Tae Kwan Do. And for himself to be the leader of that dominant force. Choi was diagnosed with cancer and the longtime leader of the ITF was not able to drive the federation as hard as he wanted. In 2002 General Choi passed away and left the federation fighting over control. Choi appointed his successor in his last will. But the ITF split after his death into three groups. They battled each other for trademarks and power.

There are many details that I glossed over or skipped in the summary to keep it shorter. The book is a very thorough walk through the history of the martial art / sport. Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and a university instructor and has done an amazing job of research. There are 25+ pages of citations and resources listed in the book. He was able to interview many of the people listed in the book personally including General Choi.

This book was not the history I started out looking for. After reading it though I was glad it found me. I had mixed feelings while reading it as it is not the ancient spiritual and physical revelations that are typically stereotyped. It is back room dealings, underhanded political agendas and the quest for prestige and power. Despite that there are great things that come out of Tae Kwan Do. One just has to look at the tenets that Tae Kwan Do is built upon.

Indomitable Spirit

After reading the book and writing this, I feel I need to read it again in order to start absorbing the details that are naturally missed the first time. I still would like to know how Moo Duk Kwan fits into the history. Hwang Kee, the head of the Moo Duk Kwan, was only mentioned in passing in the book and cited in a few pictures. For such a large part of Tae Kwan Do to only get a mention makes me curious what other large events I’m missing out on since this book caught me by surprise.

In closing I would recommend this book to anyone that is curious about the history of Tae Kwan Do. Although, with a note of warning that the book is not about ancient martial artists seeking enlightenment but normal people fighting to stay alive and fighting for power and prestige.

A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do
Alex Gillis