The founder of taekwondo, Choi Hong-hi, conceived of the martial art in the ashes of the Korean War. As a South Korean army general, Choi had seen so much suffering, starting with Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, through the 1950-53 war in which millions died. He sought to turn the human body into a weapon and devise a form of combat that could prevent the widespread devastation caused by mechanized warfare. He also saw martial arts as a way of inculcating character, of spreading moral guidelines.
Decades later, some still see taekwondo as a tool to achieve peace in Korea. On June 23, a team of North Korean taekwondo practitioners arrived in South Korea to perform demonstrations as part of the World Taekwondo Federation (WT) Championships, which are taking place in Muju, South Korea from June 24-30. The International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) is associated with North Korea and WT with South Korea; the two rival organizations have a long and complex history of both discord and cooperation. (Over the weekend, WT announced a formal rebranding, discontinuation of the acronym WTF…for reasons that should be obvious enough.)
The South Korean government is covering all the costs of the North Korean delegation’s trip to Muju. This rare act of athletic cooperation comes at a time when South and North Korean relations are at a pivotal juncture. With North Korea demonstrating continued development of its nuclear weapon and missile programs, the governments of the two Koreas have had little to no high-level contact for years. With liberal governments in the Blue House from 1998 to 2008, the two sides regularly held government meetings, all the way up to the highest positions, with inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.
Alongside this official contact went various forms of private exchange with the North, between businesses, sports, religious and environmental groups. The thinking beyond behind such engagement is that allowing unofficial interchange allows the forming of connections, however minor, between people in North and South Korea, as small steps toward eventual reunification, and that person-to-person contact can allow people from both sides to see each other as individuals, not just citizens of an enemy state.
A new phase of taekwondo’s role in Korean history could be set to take off this week. After years of conservative rule in the South, during which all forms of inter-Korean cooperation and exchange were cut off, there is again a liberal, Moon Jae-in, in the Blue House, and this week’s taekwondo event is the first contact with North Korea under his watch.
“Contact through sports allows people to get to know each other on a human level,” ITF spokesman George Vitale said in an interview with Korea Exposé.
Taekwondo’s history mirrors the story of inter-Korean conflict and division, and took a drastic turn when Choi Hong-hi left South Korea for Canada in 1972 due to friction with the undemocratic Park Chung-hee administration. Upon relocating, Choi moved the ITF’s headquarters to Toronto, which spurred South Korea to form WT as a rival organization in response. The existence of these two organizations paved the way for the emergence of two different strains of taekwondo, one associated (accurately or not) with each of the two Koreas.
According to Vitale, Choi considered himself a Korean, and didn’t identify specifically with either the North or South. After some time in exile, Vitale says, Choi longed to return to his homeland, but ended up spending the rest of his life in Canada, where he died from cancer in 2002. Before his death, Choi applied to be buried in a veterans’ cemetery in South Korea. His request was denied, but it was North Korea that welcomed him, granting him a burial in its national cemetery for patriots.
During his second life in Canada, he traveled the world spreading taekwondo teachings, growing the sport to its roughly 50 million practitioners today. But his close association with North Korea complicates his legacy in the South, where some dismiss his life’s work as overrated.
For Vitale, it wasn’t experience with war, but the martial arts movies that were popular in the United States in the 1970s that sparked his passion for taekwondo. It all started when he saw the movie “Billy Jack” in the early 1970s. The film’s energetic fight scenes inspired Vitale to walk a few blocks from his home in New York City to a taekwondo training ground, where he embarked on what would be decades of immersion in learning and teaching the martial arts export that he describes as, “Korea’s greatest gift to the world.”
“I’ve had a great seat for 42 years of taekwondo history,” said Vitale, who has a doctorate in physical education and sports science with a focus on Taekwondo from North Korea.
Perhaps the most intriguing event on the North Koreans’ schedule while in the South is a joint performance with a WT team. During that event, spectators will be able to see a live illustration of how taekwondo has evolved differently in South and North Korea, and how inter-Korean division, and the lack of contact that comes with it, has led to different strains of taekwondo: the same moves executed with subtle differences.
Vitale holds an eight dan, the second highest rank, and was inducted into the taekwondo hall of fame in 2009. He said the similarities in the two strains overcame any differences. “The differences in practice are surface-level differences. At heart it’s the same front kick, the same side kick.”
Taekwondo was made an Olympic sport in 2000, becoming only the second Asian sport to accomplish that feat (the first was judo, from Japan). Vitale said that if this week’s event goes off successfully, the ITF and WT will plan to work together on an event in Pyongyang in September.
There is understandable skepticism over the prospect that sports exchange can spark any long-term rapprochement between North and South Korea. Critics, mostly on the right of the political spectrum, have dismissed the efforts of South Korea’s liberal administrations as wastes of time and money that did little to change North Korea’s determination to arm itself with a steadily growing array of weaponry and to deprive its people of basic civil and political rights.
On June 24, President Moon Jae-in attended the event in Muju, and proposed South and North Korea fielding a unified team at next year’s winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Though the two Koreas competed separately, they marched together at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
It remains to be seen whether or not the two sides might be able to work out the many formal and logistical questions involved in fielding a unified team. Vitale declined to go into detail on questions of politics, but asked, not entirely rhetorically, “What is the alternative to engagement?”
He answered, “I don’t know, but anyone watching in Muju will be able to see the benefits of engaging.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Choi Hong-hi moved to Pyongyang in 1979. Choi visited Pyongyang that year but did not live in North Korea at any time. The article has been revised to reflect this fact. We thank George Vitale for bringing the error to our attention.