24 November 2021

Q & A: Who is Choi Hong Hi, did he get a Nobel Prize, and was he a unifying figure between North and South Korea?

Several months ago I saw the following question on Reddit/taekwondo:

"Can somebody please help me clear the story of how Master Choi Hong Hi managed to share TaeKwon-Do to the world and what is the story behind this martial art. Also did the man get a Nobel Prize or anything at all? He was a real unification figure of the 2 countries!" [June 25, 2021]

I answered the question there and decided to post the answer here, now:

On 18 June 2021 I visited the Kukkiwon in Seoul, South Korea. (The Kukkiwon is basically the Mecca for WT / Kukki style Taekwondo.) The reason for my visit was to see a photography exhibit about the early history of Taekwondo. The photo exhibit lasted only one week; it was unusual in its clear depiction of Choi Honghi's central role in Taekwondo. I must be clear that the exhibit was not about Choi Honghi, but about the history of Taekwondo. Yet, nearly half of the photos featured had Choi Honghi front and centre. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words.


Taekwondo History Photo Exhibition at the Kukkiwon, Seoul, Korea - June 2021

When I came to Korea over a decade ago, I was advised to be careful what I say and write about Choi Honghi and (his) ITF Taekwon-Do. This was during President Lee Myung-bak's administration who was very anti North Korea. Up until that time, Choi Honghi was practically considered anathema and his involvement in Taekwondo history was actively suppressed by the government and Taekwondo authorities. People who practised ITF or spoke favourably of Choi Honghi were covertly investigated by the NIS (National Intelligence Service; previously known as the KCIA).

Things have changed a lot since that time. Especially, in recent years I've seen a re-evaluation of Choi Honghi academically and within major WT/Kukki Taekwondo organizations here in South Korea. (WT, i.e. World Taekwondo, and Kukki Taekwondo have historically been negative of Choi Hong hi.)

Here are some examples:

On 28 November 2018, I attended an academic conference titled: "Conference for the 100th Anniversary of Choi Hong Hi: Taekwon-Do and Life; How to View Choi Hong Hi". The conference was held at the Korea National Sport University and was organized by TaekwonBox Media. Attendees included mostly people from the Taekwondo Promotion Foundation, and Taekwondo professors, researchers and students from Taekwondo colleges. Note, that at the time the conference occurred, there were no ITF Taekwon-Do departments at South Korea universities; the participants at this conference were primarily WT people. I think one of the speakers made a valid point: Dr. Heo Keonsik, who is the General Director of the Chungju World Martial Arts Mastership Organizing Committee suggested that Choi Honghi's legacy was suppressed and ignored because of "Red Complex", which is a "complex" in Korea that causes people to avoid and self-censor anything related to communism and North Korea. (Choi Honghi visited and introduced ITF Taekwon-Do to North Korea in the early 1980s. He did so in his capacity as a Canadian citizen, not as a South Korean citizen; nevertheless, as a previously South Korean military general, this act was viewed as treasonous by many South Koreans.)

On 22 June 2020, I participated at a symposium at Youngsan University's Busan Campus. The symposium focused on the article "The Early Globalization Process of Taekwondo, from the 1950s to the 1970s" by Taekwondo scholars Drs Udo Moenig and Youngil Kim. The article was submitted to the Asian Journal of Sport History and Culture and was published in March 2021. I think Dr Moenig would not be offended with me for saying that he is not a fan of Choi Honghi; nevertheless, his article made it abundantly clear that Choi Honghi and his direct subordinates were fundamental in the early spread of Taekwondo around the world. (Dr Moenig has submitted a very critical article about Choi Honghi -- I think to the same journal -- which, if accepted, should be published towards the end of this year or early next year.)

The Taekwondowon (a Korean government institution dedicated to the advancement and promotion of Taekwondo) has included Choi Honghi in the "Hall of Taekwondo Greats" where they credit him (if I remember the plaque correctly) as the person who coined the name "Tae Kwon Do", the first president of the Korea Taekwondo Association, and for spreading Taekwondo around the world.

Now to address the original question more specifically.

Choi Honghi organized and spearheaded the first Taekwondo demonstrations outside of Korea (Taekwondo Goodwill Tours) which led to the establishment of the first Taekwondo organizations in other countries. Many of Choi's subordinates became the first formal teachers of Taekwondo in other countries. When you search for "father of Taekwondo in [Germany/Netherlands/Poland/UK/Singapore/Vietname/etc.]", practically each one of these "fathers" are direct subordinates of Choi Honghi. It was on this foundation that the WT could later claim a world wide Taekwondo presence that helped get Taekwondo into the Olympics.

Choi Honghi did not get a Nobel Peace Prize, but he was nominated for it by the Canadian government. He was a Canadian citizen in good standing and high esteem. The Canadian embassy in Seoul, Korea, even named their exercise hall the "Choi Hong-Hi Gym." There is an academic article currently in process that is considering Choi Honghi as an advocate for peace. After some recommended edits by the academic journal reviewers, the article is likely to be published towards the end of this year or early next year.

Choi Honghi was not a unifying figure between North and South Korea although he clearly articulated his hope that Korea would be unified again. He also (in)directly created a means for North and South Korea to interact through what has become known as "Taekwondo Diplomacy". In recent years, when North and South Korea were at a political stalemate, they have used "Taekwondo Diplomacy" as an excuse for these two governments to re-establish diplomatic relations. The North Korean (ITF) Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team and the South Korean (WT) Taekwondo Demonstration Team joined in shared Taekwondo demonstration over several years now (such as at the 2015 WT World Championships, the 2016 North Korean visit to South Korea, the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and some other joined activities). You can find some recent academic articles online about how Taekwondo diplomacy has been used and even how Choi Honghi's philosophy contributed to this. (Search for "Taekwondo" + "diplomacy" or "sport diplomacy" or "soft diplomacy".)

Choi Honghi is a divisive figure, but even in South Korea where his contributions were actively suppressed by the government (since the time of the dictatorial president Park Chunghee), his contributions are as of late being critically re-evaluated and he is being honored as one of the key-figures in the establishment and spread of Taekwondo.

As for part of your question, "what is the story behind this martial art": the question is a bit vague and the topic is quite broad to discuss here properly. Nevertheless, here is a very short summary. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that evolved out of Japanese Karate. The term "Taekwondo" ("Tae Kwon Do" / "Taekwon-Do") was coined around 1955 by South Korean military general, Choi Honghi. By the late 1960s the term was applied to all the forms of Koreanized Karate that was pracitsed in South Korea.

By the early 1970s there were two clear branches of Taekwondo that became known as ITF (International Taekwon-Do Federation, with Choi Honghi as founder and first president) and Kukki Taekwondo (which means national Taekwondo) or WTF (World Taekwondo Federation; the name was changed to simply "World Taekwondo" in 2016). WT is the Taekwondo practised in the Olympic games and has a primarily sport focus. ITF is not in the Olympic games and follows a more "traditional martial arts" curriculum.

I recommend the book A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do for a more thorough answer to your question.

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