07 March 2022

Taekwon-Do vis-à-vis the Russian Invasion of Ukraine


Russian and Ukrainian "brothers in Taekwon-Do"
sitting beside each other at a Taekwon-Do championships.
(Reposted from Facebook. Original source unknown.)

Taekwon-Do vis-à-vis the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Dr. Sanko Lewis


I’ve been seeing lots of posts on Facebook from the international Taekwon-Do community and specifically from the ITF Taekwon-Do community calling to ban Russian Taekwon-Do athletes from competing at international ITF Taekwon-Do events because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this post I want to outline why I disagree with this. However, before anybody accuse me of being pro-Russia or anti-Ukraine, let me make it clear: I am against the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and am against this war. A substantial part of my PhD dissertation[1] was about Ethics of War. There is much one can write about that topic but suffice it to say that I resonate with the Taoists on this topic—all wars are tragedies, all wars are lamentable.[2]


To return to the main topic of this essay, I do not agree with the banning of Russian Taekwon-Doin from international Taekwon-Do events.


First, Taekwon-Do has a history of being used for peace building and soft power diplomacy, by bringing together otherwise apathetic and even antagonistic groups under the banner of Taekwon-Do.[3] Soft power diplomacy uses non-coercive methods such as cultural exchange, sport events, positive media exposure, and so on, to affect positive relations through appeal and attraction. The first soft power diplomacy that Taekwon-Do was engaged in was already in 1959, when Choi Hong Hi, a general in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) military took a Taekwon-Do demonstration team on what was called a “Goodwill Tour”. Many of Taekwon-Do’s most famous grandmasters such as Nam Tae Hi, Kim Bok Man, Han Cha Kyo, and so on were part of that first international trip to Vietnam and Taiwan. Another Goodwill Tour in 1965 travelled to West Germany, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, and Singapore. In 1973, the ITF Demonstration Team toured 23 countries, including Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Such tours not only put South Korea in a positive light abroad, but it also helped to “bridge gaps between political ideologies”[4]. It was with this attitude that General Choi introduced Taekwon-Do to his former enemies: Japan (the former colonizers of Korea) and North Korea (whom he fought against during the Korean War). In fact, one of Choi’s proudest moments were the first time he saw Japanese Taekwon-Do athletes competing with Korean Taekwon-Do athletes at a Taekwon-Do World Championship. Furthermore, it was his lifelong dream that North and South Korea would reunify and that Taekwon-Do may play a part in that. Taekwon-Do has now been affective in bringing South and North Korea together on several significant occasions.


Rather than use Taekwon-Do to drive people apart, I think Taekwon-Do should be used to bring ‘opponents’ together. The most famous use of sport diplomacy (which is a form of soft power diplomacy) was in 1971, affectionately referred to as ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’, when table tennis was used to bring the antagonistic Unites States of America and People’s Republic of China together. This event paved the way for President Nixon to visit Beijing in 1972. Similarly, very high tensions between North and South Korea and North Korean and the United States were eased through Taekwon-Do diplomacy, when North Korean and South Korean Taekwon-Do demonstration teams came together to share the same stage during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. These shared Taekwon-Do activities by North and South Koreans led to summits between North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and South Korean president Moon Jae In, and it is believed that this is what later led to the summits between Pyeongyang and Washington.


What we need to see is Ukrainian and Russian Taekwon-Do practitioners standing side by side and competing alongside each other as part of one global Taekwon-Do family. This is how, I believe, Taekwon-Do organizations should affect positive change towards peace. Taekwon-Do organizations should create opportunities for Ukrainian and Russian Taekwon-Do practitioners to shake hands with each other in friendship, to bow to each other in respect, and maybe even to hug each other in Taekwon-Do fraternity. Getting Russians and Ukrainians (and the rest of the world) to see each other’s common humanity should be the goal. Sharing photos of such moments of friendship and mutual respect between supposed enemies should be the publicity Taekwon-Do organizations should strive for—not virtue signaling through calls of bans, othering, and separation.   


Second, we ought to be very clear what we hope to achieve with sanctions. The idea that sanctions against Russian Taekwon-Do athletes will send some type of message to Vladimir Putin is, frankly, silly. Broad sanctions against groups of people—in an effort to somehow punish their leaders or in a hope that it would result in an internal overthrow of the government—are not particularly effective. For example, the USA has had sanctions against Cuba and North Korea for decades. This has done practically nothing to change the status quo in those countries. Rather, it just hurt the average Cuban and North Korean, and especially the poorest and weakest among them, while the elites continue to live in relative comfort while remaining in positions of power. Unless the sanctions are specific in nature, to target particular individuals and systems, they do not generally result in change. By banning all Russian Taekwon-Do athletes we are indirectly signaling that all Russians are evil, and not affecting the power structure. Rather, I am in support of World Taekwondo for stripping President Putin of the honorary black belt they bestowed upon him in 2013[5]; and the protests calling for Yongin University (South Korea) to recall the Honorary Doctorate Degree in Judo Studies that they bestowed upon Putin in 2010[6]. These are focused signals of disapproval against the guilty, without scapegoating a whole nation.


Third, I think it is hypocritical of the international ITF community to discriminate against Russia, but not against other aggressive or oppressive countries. Consider, for instance, the invasions and attacks by foreign forces of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan, and the list goes on. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, and several other Western countries, as well as the United Arab Emirates, have attacked or invaded the list of countries above over the last several decades. To this day, there are still American and other forces in places like Iraq and Yemen. It is a well-established fact that the war on Iraq (that began under the Bush administration) was not a justifiable invasion[7], but based on the lie of “weapons of mass destruction” and was more likely motivated by wanting an access to Iraqi resources. Invading forces in Yemen include Saudi Arabia and the United States (which started under the Obama administration). The current famine in Yemen, which is directly related to the wars in the country, is considered the worse famine in the world in the last century[8]. Yet, the international Taekwon-Do community is not calling for the ban on Taekwon-Do athletes from the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, or any other Western country involved in such foreign invasions. Similarly, it generally accepted by the international community that the Chinese government is violating the human rights of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang regions[9]—not to mention China’s oppression of freedoms in Tibet and Hong Kong. Yet, the international Taekwon-Do community is not calling for the ban of Taekwon-Do athletes from China. Without consistency, banning members from one aggressive country but not another is hypocritical and void of integrity (a supposed fundamental tenet in Taekwon-Do).


My hope that Taekwon-Do may be used to create spaces that are welcoming to anyone “regardless of religion, race or ideology” may be naïve. Still, it is this “Philosophy of Taekwon-Do”[10] that I am advocating. If Taekwon-Do is to be used politically, let it be in peace building efforts that create unity, not separation. Let Taekwon-Do transcend the “Us vs. Them”-narrative, and instead let Taekwon-Do frame a space for the pursuit of peace—an extended “Do-Jang”—where Ukrainian, Russian, and other Taekwon-Doin from around the world can come together as a “We” around our common goals to be champions of “freedom and justice” and to “build a more peaceful world.”[11]

[1] Lewis, S. 2016. Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism’s Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts. (PhD Thesis. Department of Sport & Taekwondo, Graduate School of Physical Education of Kyunghee University, Korea.)

[2] Lao Tzu, Daodejing, Chapter 31: “There is no glory in victory [ . . . ] When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of mourning.” (Lau, D. C., trans. (1963). Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.)

[3] Johnson, J. A. & Vitale, G. 2018. “Taekwondo Diplomacy: New Possibilities for Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Physical Activity Review, 6: 237-250.

[4] Vitale, G. 2022. “A History of TaeKwon-Do Demo’s.” Totally Tae Kwon Do. Republished March 2022. (Originally published July 2009.)

[5] “World Taekwondo revokes Putin’s honorary black belt over Ukraine.” Korea Times. 1 March 2022. URL: https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/sports/2022/03/600_324757.html

[6] “Calls grow for revocation of Putin’s honorary degree at Yong In University.” The Korea Herald. 27 February 2022. URL: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220227000199

[7] Fisher, D & Biggar, N. 2011. “Was Iraq an unjust war? A debate on the Iraq war and reflections on Libya.” International Affairs, 87(3): 687-707.

[8] “Yemen could be ‘worst famine in 100 years’”. BBC. 15 October 2018. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-45857729

[9] “China: ongoing Human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.” International Federation for Human Rights. 28 June 2021. URL: https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/china/china-ongoing-human-rights-violations-against-uyghurs-and-other

[10] Choi, H. H. “Philosophy of Taekwon-Do.” ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.

[11] Choi, H. H. “Oath of Taekwon-Do.” ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.

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