World of Taekwondo Spars over Governance, Rival Fighting Styles

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World of Taekwondo Spars over Governance, Rival Fighting Styles

The proposed inter-Korean exchange of taekwondo demonstration teams is one of the more promising sports exchanges envisioned by the two Koreas. With an estimated 50 million practitioners in 154 countries, taekwondo is the world's most popular martial art.

Cooperation between the sport's two major governing bodies would further boost the art's popularity. But difficult questions remain over whether the sides, who remain as bitter rivals as the two Koreas once were, can find common ground and, more important, how they can integrate their two distinctly different systems of taekwondo.

"Unification of the two bodies will be really difficult, though exchanges are possible," says Lee Jin-jae, planning director of, a Web site devoted to taekwondo and other Korean martial arts. "The organizations, forms and rules of sparring are too different for them to integrate."

South Korea has the World Taekwondo Federation, which has seen phenomenal growth in members and influence since its founding in 1973. Based in Seoul, it is headed by Dr. Kim Un-yong, an advanced black belt and, as a member of the International Olympic Committee, one of the world's most powerful sports figures.

North Korea is affiliated with the International Taekwondo Federation, a Vienna, Austria-based organization. It was founded by a former South Korean army general, Choi Hong-hi, the founder of taekwondo and the first to coin the term in 1955.

The world federation is by far the larger and more influential body. It realized a long-held dream last year when World Taekwondo Federation-style taekwondo sparring was adopted as a permanent Olympic event, 12 years after its debut as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. Largely because of the popularity of the Olympic example, the world federation style is dominant in the United States, Europe and South America, though many instructors have learned and teach both styles.

The international federation style is the standard in former communist-bloc countries such as Russia, Cuba and Vietnam. That could change given the recent adoption of world federation taekwondo as a permanent Olympic event.

Politics underlies the bitter relations between the two bodies. Choi angered South Korean officials when he visited North Korea in 1966. He resigned soon after as president of the (South) Korea Taekwondo Association and founded the International Taekwondo Federation in 1972 in Canada. The World Taekwondo Federation was set up the next year in Seoul with Kim Un-yong as president. It held its first world championships the same year.

Kim Un-yong refused cooperation with the international federation for decades, but had a change of heart at the direction of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung amid the reconciliatory atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly gave Choi the same directive last year.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to cooperation between the federations is the vast difference in their styles of taekwondo. Both systems have similar blocks, stances and strikes, but the world federation uses the newer and more self-defense-oriented "Taegeuk" forms. Sparring is continuous and allows full-contact kicks to the head and torso. The International Taekwondo Federation teaches forms created by founder Choi. It allows minimal to no contact, with padded gloves and footpads.

Some purists say the international federation style focuses more on taekwondo as martial art, rather than overemphasizing the sporting aspect, as the world federation style does. Others say International Taekwondo Federation sparring is unrealistic and unexciting with its no-contact rules and that it doesn't teach quickness for use in actual fighting situations.

There the impasse stands. Don't look for reconciliation soon. As the leading body, the World Taekwondo Federation has little reason to concede anything in the name of peninsular cooperation.

by D. Peter Kim

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