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Martial Arts: Korean Arts: Taekwondo

Storming the Fortress:  A History of Taekwondo

Part Five:Political Forces Shape the Evolution of Karate Into South Korea's National Sport

By Eric Madis

The Korean people’s memories of decades of Japanese occupation and their mistreatment at the hands of Japanese colonialists are primary reasons for the anti-Japanese sentiment that is still prevalent in modern Korean society.  Like their counterparts in Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands (other colonies seized by Japan between 1878 and 1895), many Koreans during occupation grew up believing that their destiny was to be second-class Japanese citizens (Ishide, 2000).  As Lee Won-kuk (Korean karate pioneer and founder of the Chungdohwe) said, “I never thought that Korea would win its independence from Japan” (Lee, 1997). Nevertheless, World War II brought an end to the Japanese empire and Korea was freed from Japanese dominance.  For decades to come, Republic of Korea (ROK) politicians used anti-Japanese sentiment to foster Korean nationalism. In the case of taekwondo, this was one of several political forces that would be used to consciously separate taekwondo from its origins in karate (Capener, 1995). 

Japan’s unconditional surrender to the United States on August 15, 1945 resulted in an immediate power vacuum in Korea.  The short-lived People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) was established within the next two weeks in an attempt to bring order and Korean control to the Korean peninsula.  During World War II, socialists, communists, capitalists and nationalists were united against a common foe:  Japan.  Following the war, these former allies became enemies in a new, “cold war” between capitalist and communist powers, represented primarily by the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  While the PRK was attempting to establish itself as a legitimate government, the United Nations was developing plans for a trusteeship administration, assigning temporary control of Korea north of the 38th parallel to the USSR and south of the 38th parallel to the US.  Alarmed by the precarious geographic position of South Korea and the disunity between the PRK and the Provisional Korean government (that had been established in exile in 1919 in Shanghai, China), the US feared the possibility of South Korea falling under communist control.  Therefore the US sent armed forces to Korea in September 1945, establishing the US Military Government in Korea (USAMGK), which to many Koreans’ disappointment reappointed many Japanese colonial administrators and their Korean police collaborators (Cumings, 1981: 126; Hart-Landsberg, 1998: 71-77).  Although the PRK had lasted as a government for less than one month, it remained popular with Koreans and continued to function unofficially as an alternative to the USAMGK, until it was forcefully dissolved by the USAMGK in January 1946.  Many Koreans felt that, after gaining independence from Japan, they were losing it again to two competing superpowers that viewed Korea as the “line in the sand” between their diverging ideologies.  Therefore, despite the presence of considerable American and Soviet forces in a divided Korea, civil unrest continued throughout the Korean peninsula until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.  

Speaking of the social and political upheaval of this period, Lee Won-kuk said, “There was civil unrest and violence associated with the establishment of the independent government.  Gangs and political groups fought each other in the streets.” (Lee, 1997).  In response to gang use of tangsoodo (Korean: “China hand way” or “karate”) in street fighting, the USAMGK (US Military Goverment In Korea) declared martial law in 1946, suppressed the practice of tangsoodo, and  “refused to allow the teaching of tangsoodo in government facilities such as schools” (Lee, 1997).  During this time, tangsoodo continued to be taught in private facilities.  For example, Lee taught tangsoodo at the Tae Go Sa, a Buddhist temple in Seoul (Lee, 1997, Massar & St. Cyrien, 1999).

Lee Won-kuk

Once order was restored in 1947, the use of public institutions for the practice and teaching of tangsoodo was allowed.  The martial arts, particularly karate (Korean: tangsoodo or kongsoodo), experienced a surge in the popularity following a martial art exhibition that occurred at the Seoul YMCA gymnasium in 1947.  Immediately students at Konkuk and Seoul Universities, military recruits and the staff of the National Police headquarters sought instruction in tangsoodo (Lee, 1997).

Elections were held in July 1948, shortly after completion of a constitution for the new Republic of Korea (ROK).  In August 1948, a US-educated and supported, right wing politician named Rhee Syng-man was elected the first president of the ROK.  Some Korean political leaders began to view the larger martial arts schools as potentially powerful political assets.  The following account, which appeared previously in the second article of this series, illustrates this point. Yun Cae, the head of ROK’s national police under President Rhee, offered Chungdohwe leader Lee Won-kuk an appointment as Minister of Internal Affairs if he would convince his entire 5000-member association to support Rhee’s political party.  Lee refused and later explained:  “I was concerned that the government’s motive for enrolling 5000 martial artists in the president’s party was not to promote justice, so I politely declined the offer” (Lee, 1997). Almost immediately, Lee, his family and several of his top students were accused of being a pro-Japanese assassin group, arrested and held until 1950.  This is ironic because, according to noted Korean historian Chungdohwe, “during the 12 years of Syngman Rhee’s administration (1948-1960), 83% of 115 cabinet ministers were Japanese agents or collaborators under Japanese colonial rule” (Lee, 2002).

Rhee Syng-man

From 1947 until the onset of the Korean War in 1950, attempts were made by some of the leaders of the five major schools of Korean karate (Korean: Oh Geh Ki Kwan) to establish common standards and offer interschool competitions.  Whether for political, stylistic or personal reasons, these initial attempts were unsuccessful (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 1). 

On June 25, 1950, after months of border skirmishes between People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (PDRK) forces in the north and ROK forces in the south, Chinese-reinforced North Korean forces invaded South Korea.  Many Koreans, including martial arts school leaders, fled southward to the coastal city of Pusan.  Training and instruction in tangsoodo continued on a limited basis in Pusan during the Korean War. As Chungdohwe senior instructor Song Duk-sung said, “When the Korean War broke out, the members were separated as refugees, but I gathered a few members and continued to teach” (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 3). 

Song Duk-sung

By early 1953, rumors of an armistice between the hostile powers prompted leaders of the five major schools to discuss plans to cooperate after the war (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 2).  The Korean Kongsoodo Association (KKA), established on May 25, 1953, discussed the setting of quality standards, official dan (Korean: “degree of black belt”) rank certification and interschool tournaments (Kang and Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 2; The first president of the KKA was Jo Young-ju, not a tangsoodo instructor, but a judo practitioner and a former president of the mindan (Japanese: “public group”), the Korean resident’s association in Japan.  The KKA chief director, Songmookwan leader Ro Byung-jik, led the group’s discussions on testing and grading standards.  Despite this initial interschool cooperation, within two months Hwang Kee of the Moodukkwan and Song Duk-sung of the Chungdokwan (formerly the Chungdohwe) withdrew from the KKA for not being appointed to the association’s central testing committee (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 2).

Ro Byung-jik

After an armistice brought an end to the Korean War on July 27, 1953, martial arts instructors returned to Seoul from their temporary homes in Pusan.  Almost immediately, Moodukkwan leader Hwang Kee unilaterally formed his own organization called the Korean Tangsoodo Association. However, his application for membership in the Korean Amateur Athletic Association was denied following petition by leading members of the KKA.  The KKA continued toward its goals, conducting a series of four testings, two at the Chungdokwan’s central dojang and two at the Changmookwan’s Chae Shin Bu dojang.  Hwang Kee was invited, but did not attend these testings (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Subchapter 2).  Despite efforts to sustain this spirit of cooperation and unification, the KKA dissolved in less than a year. 
The first article in the present series discussed the September 1954 martial arts demonstration conducted by the ROK Army 29th Division, its impression on President Rhee, and Rhee’s directive to 29th Division leader General Choi Hong-hi to change the  names of Korean karate from tangsoodo and kongsoodo (both Korean versions of “karate-do”) to a new Korean name.  Choi and his selected committee of martial arts, business and political leaders agreed on the name taekwondo (Korean: “kicking and punching way”), in part because of its similarity to the old Korean martial sport taekyon.  Despite Choi’s authority as a ROK Army general and his support by President Rhee, Choi was unable to gain universal acceptance of this new name.  Therefore, in early 1955, the name taekwondo was implemented at only two schools over which Choi had direct authority:  the Army’s Odokwan and its related civilian school, the Chungdokwan.  Other schools, including the Jidokwan, Jungdokwan, Songmookwan, Moodukkwan, Kangdukwan, and Hanmookwan, would continue to use the terms tangsoodo or kongsoodo for years to come.

Choi, Hong-hi

In the late autumn of 1959, Choi invited leaders of the four largest Korean karate schools to his home. Despite strong insistence on retaining the term tangsoodo by Moodukwan leader Hwang Kee, Songmookwan leader Ro Byung-jik, Jidokwan leader Yun Kwei-byung, and Changmookwan leader Lee Nam-suk, Choi eventually persuaded everyone to accept the term taekwondo and to join the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA). Choi was elected as president, Ro and Yun as vice presidents, Hwang as board of governors' director, and Lee as testing committee director. However, Hwang Kee withdrew from the KTA in early 1960, just as he had from the KKA in 1953 (Kimm, 2000; Kang & Lee, 1999; Chapter 2, Subchapter 4). This was not the only challenge to the KTA, as much stronger winds of change were soon to come to Korea.

By the end of the 1950s, the regime of President Rhee Syng-man was nearing its end.  During his tenure, Rhee’s regime was “..obsessed with using the fear of communism to purge opponents and so maintain its authoritarian rule” (Ha & Mangan: 224).  The untimely and suspicious death of Democratic Party leader Cho Pyong-ok (Rhee’s only serious political challenger) at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in the US and the widespread belief that the March 1960 elections had been rigged resulted in widespread opposition to Rhee’s election.  On April 19, 1960, a student uprising ignited a successful revolution that would force Rhee to step down.  This was followed by establishment of a new government and legislative elections in June 1960, resulting in a landslide victory for Democratic Party candidates.  Within months, bitter factionalism within the Democratic Party, economic problems, high inflation, food shortages and high crime rates would motivate ROK military leaders to conduct a coup d’etat on May 16, 1961.

During the chaotic early months of 1960, Moodukkwan leader Hwang Kee enlisted the help of a powerful friend to officially register Hwang’s own newly formed Korean Subahkdo Association with the Korean Amateur Sports Association (KASA) . Subahkdo was Hwang’s modern variation of subahk, a term referring to unarmed fighting methods in the late 18th century military text called the Mooyae Dobo Tongji, and his vision of a uniquely Korean art.  A collectively signed petition to the KASA and the Ministry of Education from the KTA officially criticized Hwang’s unilateral decision, admonished the Moodukkwan for being “a hotbed of gangsters”, tolerating bullying of the public by its students, awarding dan (Korean: “black belt”) ranks recklessly and selling ranks for high prices to undeserving students for the purposes of profit and school expansion, and demanded that both agencies deny Hwang’s registration.  The agencies were not legally able to do so, but acknowledged that they also could not recognize two organizations for one sport (Kang and Lee, Chapter 2, Subchapter 5). 

Hwang Kee

Since his establishment of the Moodukkwan in 1947, Hwang had often been accused by the collective Korean karate community of misrepresenting his martial arts background, opening his own school without substantial martial art experience, taking advantage of his position at the Ministry of Transportation to open numerous dojangs along railroad lines and staffing his schools with instructors who had been prematurely promoted to dan ranks.  In fact, in a June 2000 interview, Lee Won-kuk said that, in 1947 Chungdohwe senior instructor Son Duk-sung “chased down Hwang in the street and beat him up” because of claims that Hwang was making about himself (Uesegi,, June 2000).  Throughout chapter two of their groundbreaking 1999 book A Modern History of Taekwondo, authors Kang Won-sik and Lee Kyong-myong include numerous examples of Hwang’s obstinacy to interschool cooperation.  Many Korean karate leaders, recognizing a need to unify in order to distinguish Korean martial arts from others and to recover Korea’s indigenous martial arts traditions, expressed frustration with Hwang throughout the 1950s and 1960s for numerous cases of reneging on his agreements to cooperate with the standards of the Korean Kongsoodo, Taesoodo and Taekwondo Associations.  Therefore, it is not surprising that Hwang became the major nemesis of Choi Hong-hi during taekwondo’s first decade: 1955-1965 (Kang & Lee, Chapter 2, Section 9; Gillis, 76).  Despite this, Hwang’s Moodukwan was a force to be reckoned with, since from the late 1950s until its height in 1965, it had by far the largest enrollment of all Korean karate institutes.  According to Hwang, the Moodukkwan’s membership at its height comprised 70% of the Korean martial arts community (Hwang, 1995, 43-44).  Despite this, a majority of the Moodukkwan’s membership forsook Hwang in March 1965 to join the newly unified Korean Taekwondo Association (Kang and Lee, Chapter 2, Section 9; Hwang, 1995: 45-46).



The author would like to thank Graham Noble, Joseph Svinth, Alex Gillis, Michael “Kim” Sol, Shannon Burton, Dennis McHenry and Chris Thomas for their personal communications and assistance. 

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About The Author:

Eric Madis is a Pacific Northwest recording artist, guitar instructor and Tang Soo Do instructor.  He began his martial arts training in 1963 and his study of Korean martial arts in 1982, and currently holds a master rank in Tang Soo Do.  His instructors include some of the pioneers of Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do.  Mr. Madis' previous publications are in the fields of martial arts history and ethnomusicology. 

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Lee Won-kuk, Yun Cae, Rhee Syng-man, tangsoodo, President Rhee, Chungdohwe, Chungdohwe, Oh Geh Ki Kwan, Song Duk-sung, The Korean Kongsoodo Association, Jo Young-ju, Songmookwan, Ro Byung-jik, Hwang Kee, Moodukkwan. Song Duk-sung, Chungdokwan, Chungdohwe, Korean Tangsoodo Association, General Choi Hong-hi, kongsoodo, taekyon, Jidokwan, Jungdokwan, Songmookwan, Moodukkwan, Kangdukwan, Hanmookwan, Ro Byung-jik, Jidokwan,Yun Kwei-byung,, Lee Nam-suk, Korean Subahkdo Association, Subahkdo, subahk, Mooyae Dobo Tongji, A Modern History of Taekwondo, Kang Won-sik, Lee Kyong-myong, Taesoodo

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