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A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do

A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do

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by Alex Gillis

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Obscure documents, Korean-language books, and in-depth interviews with tae kwon do pioneers tell the tale of the origin of the most popular martial art. In 1938, tae kwon do began at the end of a poker game in a tiny village in a remote corner of what is now North Korea by Choi Hong-Hi, who began the martial art, and his nemesis, Kim Un-Yong, who developed the


Obscure documents, Korean-language books, and in-depth interviews with tae kwon do pioneers tell the tale of the origin of the most popular martial art. In 1938, tae kwon do began at the end of a poker game in a tiny village in a remote corner of what is now North Korea by Choi Hong-Hi, who began the martial art, and his nemesis, Kim Un-Yong, who developed the Olympic style and became one of the most powerful, controversial men in sports. The story follows Choi from the 1938 poker game where he fought for his life, through high-class geisha houses where the art was named, and into the Vietnam War where the martial art evolved into a killing art. The techniques cut across all realms—from the late 1960s when tae kwon do–trained Korean CIA agents kidnapped people in the United States and Europe to the 1970s when Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and other Hollywood stars mastered the art’s new kicks. Tae kwon do is also a martial art for the 21st century, one of merciless techniques, indomitable men, and justice pumped on steroids.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Gillis, himself a tae kwon do black belt, succeeds in debunking the sport’s mythology . . . When he writes about corruption and backroom dealings, his voice is compelling and the depth of his research astounding . . . A Killing Art is fascinating, fast-paced, and reads more like a spy novel than a history. Beyond that, it evokes a certain voyeuristic pleasure that comes with unearthing the sordid past of something seemingly harmless.”  —Quill & Quire

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ECW Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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A Killing Art

The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do

By Alex Gillis, Michael Holmes


Copyright © 2008 Alex Gillis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-674-1


Men of the Sacred Bone

When I need a break from my life, when I need to confront stress, fear, and madness, I flee to a place of power, to a room where meditation meets brute force. I climb to a third-floor studio or descend to a basement gym, and as I feel a hardwood floor or a padded cement slab under my bare feet, I smell the sweat and effort of those who came before me, and I hear their laughter and yells, and, occasionally, I remember the blood that fell. I find reprieve in sweat and struggle.

This is not a hobby for everyone, and it is perhaps odd to call it a "break," especially because the Korean martial art that I practise, Tae Kwon Do, is extremely difficult to master and can lead to real breaks — bone breaks. Its creators embedded innumerable tests within its techniques, but the training is usually safe, and I always look forward to going. I walk into my dojang, the Korean name for a martial arts gym, hoping that my instructor, Mr. Di Vecchia, will be there with his old stories and wisdom, that Floyd will be stretching and preparing for one of his spectacular jumping front kicks, that Marc will show us the mid-air split kick once again, and that Martin will push us with his spirited sparring at the end of class. Anyone can begin the fundamentals of the art, but few can stick with it as these men have. I began Tae Kwon Do when I was a teenager, twenty-five years ago — when the art peaked in many ways — and I met these martial artists over the decades, as the physical moves hardened my muscles and strengthened my heart and mind.

The Koreans who created the martial art consciously set out to strengthen individuals and, eventually, entire nations. Tae Kwon Do is an art of self-defence, but if you enter the closed rooms of its history, you realize that it is the art of killing and if practised with care and intent, an art of empowerment. It can empower more than the body. The best martial artists apply physical techniques to mental states; they can erode or raise emotional substrata; they can build or destroy reputations, careers, friends, families, and countries. The complex paths they take — for better or worse — often depend on age-old loyalties and new-found betrayals.

I discovered this the hard way many years ago. On April 20, 2001, in the year of the Snake, I walked into the Novotel Hotel in Toronto, Canada, to wait for the "Father of Tae Kwon Do," General Choi Hong-Hi, who would lead a three-day seminar for black belts. I was naive then, and revered the eighty-two-year-old Choi and the other founding members of Tae Kwon Do, including a man named Kim Un-yong, and I felt intimidated walking into the seminar room, partly because Choi was a hard taskmaster. He had become a major-general in the South Korean army at the age of thirty-three, and even though he had retired from the military in 1962, he was still known as "the General." He and his men had sacrificed their bodies, careers, and families to perfect a martial art now practised by more than 70 million people in nearly 180 countries.

I can picture the first day of his 2001 seminar as if it were today: I wait in the Amsterdam Room of the Novotel with 100 black belts from the United States, Canada, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Honduras. Standing among the bowing, whispering martial artists, I feel as though I could be waiting within a palace of the Choson dynasty in 1394 — I imagine the ancient warriors waiting for dynastic rulers, the floors heated in the old style (invisible and underground), and the Korean geisha girls ready to sing the p'ansori verses that praise Confucian values and sagacious leaders.

The General and his men are extremely late, however. He is upstairs, talking and arguing with his son and the masters and grandmasters who will help during the seminar. These men once fought, parted, and threatened to kill one another over politics and, in some cases, over personal matters, but the masters and grandmasters know they owe their fortunes and reputations to the General, and everyone is trying to reconcile past threats with present ambitions.

The General takes lineage and loyalty as seriously as others view love. He has charted his family tree back eighteen generations to the Choson dynasty, when, in the mid-fifteenth century, a king ordered a military noble, Choi's ancestor, to move to a northern part of the peninsula to protect several towns. The Choson aristocrats, who reigned for 500 years, structured society around the "three relationships" and the "five injunctions." The General and his men seem plucked from that era, and are working on the fifth injunction — let faithfulness unite friends — abandoning the other injunctions for now (honour your ruler, honour your father, honour your elder brother, and assign man and wife different duties).

For an outsider, especially a non-Korean, it is difficult to understand the culture of these men and the conflicts among them — conflicts that have lasted decades, which is much the same as saying centuries. "Loyalty and filial piety form the deepest wellspring of Korean virtue, nurtured over thousands of years," writes scholar Bruce Cumings. Stories from the Choson era are full of dynastic leaders with "rare powers, magnificent ethics and bottomless omniscience." For fifty years, the General has reigned like a dynastic leader and has quoted the poet Po-Eun's call to loyalty: "I would not serve a second master though I might be crucified a hundred times."

We are expecting a good seminar and no crucifixions, but the General is still late, and the floor is cold, and the women have mastered head kicks rather than geisha songs. Waiting here with my black belt classmates, I wonder why the art I love is so often practised in cold basements of suburban deserts (like this one), or in dark gyms in alleyways, or at the back of concrete malls. For years, I trained in a Tae Kwon Do gym where asbestos crumbled through the ceiling and rats hid in the cracks of the shower stalls; the gym was run by a world-renowned grandmaster who did not have enough money to fix the plumbing.

In the Amsterdam Room, an eight-metre banner hangs on a wall above the head table:

Welcome to the General Choi Seminar Founder of Taekwon-Do

Many people question the word founder, including me, but I am in a minority in this room. The seminar will be the General's last in Canada; he is getting old and must travel to other places. He is also rounding up his old warriors for a new mission that I find difficult to believe: helping to reunify North and South Korea by merging his Tae Kwon Do, which is based in North Korea, with Olympic Tae Kwon Do, based in South Korea. I wonder if the General is a megalomaniac. He does want to take over all of Tae Kwon Do, and there are rumours that he will meet Kim Un-yong, the president of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), the South Korean organization that runs Olympic Tae Kwon Do. Kim is the General's enemy, but an enemy worth negotiating with, because one of Kim's coughs is worth more than a thousand of our yells.

Choi is the General, but Kim is the President. He is not in the room, but he is here in spirit. Kim began a patriotic career in the Korean CIA in a South Korean dictatorship in the 1960s. He borrowed the General's "Tae Kwon Do" name in the 1970s, inserted it into the Olympics in the 1980s and became one of the most powerful people in international sports in the 1990s. The only goal Kim has not yet achieved is immortality, and we have heard that he is working on that: North and South Korea are in the middle of negotiations and part of the plan is to hold joint Tae Kwon Do events in the autumn.

The merger talk is unnerving many black belts, because Tae Kwon Do is supposed to be apolitical and instructors are weary of the espionage, gangsterism, and politics, but the goal is admirable — and attainable, if you consider the history and culture of these men and their art. They are modern yangban — men of the sacred bone. Tae Kwon Do supposedly flourished 1,300 years ago under a general who held an extremely high rank in the Silla dynasty, perhaps even the rank of "sacred bone," which meant that he was near-immortal. Choi considers himself of that rank, and he is also known for being generous, funny, and approachable. Most of us in the room have read "the bible of Tae Kwon Do," as Choi dubbed his training manual, and most of us have trained until we bled. But most of us are naive, believing that the General is like a god — in the same group as the other men who developed a martial art in the twentieth century: Gichin Funakoshi (Karate), Kano Jigoro (Judo), and Morihei Ueshiba (Aikido), all of whom were Japanese. Legions of Olympic Tae Kwon Do students place Kim Un-yong in the same pantheon.

"Attention!" someone calls. All chatting stops. General Choi enters, and we bow. Seeing him in person is my first shock: he is puny — only five feet tall and about a hundred pounds. Men always pushed him around, no matter how politically cunning he was, no matter how many barroom tables he split with his bare hands. He often faced bigger opponents — generals more powerful and presidents more ruthless.

I sit on the carpet with the other black belts as one of the grandmasters attaches a microphone to the General's shirt. Before starting the action, the General introduces the men at the head table, including Grandmaster Jong-Soo Park, who owns the gym I attend but who has not worked with the General in more than two decades.

"Most of you do not know him," the General says. "He is one of my most beloved students. Give him a big hand."

We applaud, not seeing the trap. It has taken me years to learn the Rule of Opposites, a rule I discovered as I studied my martial art. It goes like this: when a martial artist says something dramatic of another who is or was a known opponent, such as "He is a beloved student," listeners should automatically assume the opposite, or close to it. According to this rule, Park is not the General's "most beloved," but they are now attempting to reconcile. Both men stopped speaking to each other in the late 1970s, after the General accused Park of co-operating with the Korean CIA in a plot to kidnap him. Park denied the charge. He is a renowned martial artist who introduced the art to West Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada in the 1960s. In his prime, he was a powerful heavyweight with fast reflexes — a devastating combination — and I could see why people had called him "the tiger." During sparring, he could be as immobile as a big cat, then leap in an instant — and seem to float at head level, remaining there far too long, kicking and punching all the while. During a 1976 demonstration, I saw him take a few steps, jump, and, with one kick, break two boards held nine feet above the floor. In those days, he overwhelmed opponents, but even Park is in awe of the General, who once considered Park a disciple and surrogate son. It seems odd that the General once accused him of a plot.

It is difficult to understand the gap between feelings and words in these men, between truths and half-truths in their world; ambivalence and shame creep through the seminar like an unseen fog.

Team demonstrations are routine events at seminars, but when someone announces that Park's demo team can begin, no one stands and Park is not in the room. Black belt instructors hear the announcement again. There are at least twenty of Park's black belts here, a couple of them former world champions, but none rise. Some of us, the young ones, are bewildered and embarrassed; Park organized this seminar in honour of the General, but he did not prepare a team? We soon find out why.

It is the manner and the tone with which the General offers advice — his no-holds-barred method of teaching — that leaves students stunned. You could call it the "old way," a way that once involved sticks on the shins, training until you vomited, and sparring after you bled. He beckons one of Park's sixth-degree black belts, an American, to the head table at the front of the room. The General asks him to explain how one would teach a new student. The black belt begins talking, but the General immediately says, "No, stop!" and points out that the first thing to teach students is how to bow. Evidently, the black belt himself did not bow properly. "That's why your school never grows," the General scolds. "The students never listen." The implication is that if students are lazy about bowing correctly, how can they obey during strenuous classes?

The General then motions with his hand for another of Park's former students to stand near the head table: Richard Parris is a sixth-degree black belt and former world sparring champion who runs his own dojang in Toronto. Once, during a world championship, I saw him fake two kicks, then, with the leg that faked still in the air, jump, spin, and execute a reverse hooking kick with the other leg, aiming his heel at his opponent's jaw. The combination jump-spin-kick with the same leg is difficult to perfect, and the combination was so unexpected at the championship that the crowd and television commentators spontaneously yelled in amazement. Even his opponent, a Karate champion, smiled in admiration after the kick beaned the top of his head.

"How do you teach a side piercing kick?" the General asks Parris, who says only three words when the General interrupts. "You know this much," the General says, putting a thumb on a forefinger. I notice that the General's thumb is on his forefinger; there is no space between. The cutting comment erupts faster than a punch, but the interpreter translates it into Spanish for the South and Central Americans. I have seen Parris easily break seven wooden boards with this side piercing kick, but the former champion does not move. There are many ex-champions in the room, but no one says a word. Parris sits down.

"Beware phony instructors!" the General suddenly warns.

This is how the seminar goes while Park prowls the restaurant and hallways of the hotel. Most of Tae Kwon Do's techniques have changed during the lost years in which he and the General did not speak. The General seems so frustrated by our techniques, which in his view need updating, that he sometimes can only yell "Whaaa!" in frustration. He is punishing us for the lost years and for the betrayals — unproven — of Park, his beloved student who refused to accompany him to North Korea on what seemed to be a suicide mission in 1980. And perhaps he is punishing Park for reasons I do not know.

In any case, Tae Kwon Do has evolved but we have not, and the General and his men are still deciding how Park and his schools will join the General's International Taekwon-Do Federation — and how much the whole thing will cost. Much of the General's criticism centres on a movement called sine wave that he developed in the early 1980s long after Park had left him to run sixteen dojangs and star in martial arts movies. The best practitioners in any martial art know how to throw their body weight into a technique, but the General dubbed this process sine wave and added his own signature to it when he ordered that Tae Kwon Do students should raise the body at the beginning of a technique and lower it at the end. Sine wave applies to almost every technique in traditional Tae Kwon Do and clearly distinguishes it from Olympic Tae Kwon Do and Karate, but Park is not in the room to hear any of this.

Those of us not being verbally attacked laugh uncomfortably. The General is a wicked, witty genius, and we are here to learn.

A young woman rises to demonstrate another technique and does it wrongly.

"You're a lady?" the General asks.

"Yes, I am," she replies.

He motions for her to sit down, waves for a man to stand, and asks him to do a low block. The man's fist is off by a quarter-inch.

"Who taught you that?" the General asks.

The black belt names the master.

"Don't know him," the General says. "You should get your money back." I feel sorry for the black belt. Tae Kwon Do has always had a dysfunctional relationship with profit; the two are fire and water. For this seminar alone, black belts paid U.S.$250 to $410 each. Park organized the event, and I volunteered to help, so I saw what happened on the first day: most black belts were well behaved but a few barged through the door without paying, and sixteen members of a South American team were either tricked into thinking that the seminar would be free or else they lied. Sometime during the three-day seminar at least $1,000 will disappear. This is what sometimes occurs when money meets the martial arts — a mix of warrior and clown, tradition and farce — and why Tae Kwon Do is sometimes pronounced "Take My Dough," as my friend Martin pointed out.


Excerpted from A Killing Art by Alex Gillis, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2008 Alex Gillis. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alex Gillis is a university writing instructor and a professional journalist specializing in literary nonfiction and investigative research. He has trained in tae kwon do for 25 years and is a third-degree black belt. His instructors were some of the pioneers of the martial art, and he had rare access to these men and their families and disciples. He lives in Toronto.

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A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
nickanhtran More than 1 year ago
the book of the author Alex, tell ud exactly how Taekwon-do was born, and later becoming a killing art of all, everyone should buy this book, because is very useful, and to know how strong is Taekwon-do
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Taekowndo is not a killing art i do it it is only used in self defense
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MasterAlCole More than 1 year ago
Well written, good grammar, spelling, sentence structure, excellent. However, it is loaded with errors in regard to Taekwondo. So many, that it becomes laughable. Alex states he double and triple checked his facts. With whom? Al Cole