Korea (Martial Arts)

Korea is a peninsula situated between China and Japan, and its history has been influenced by both nations. For much of its early history, China was the single most important influence on Korea. Chinese or Korean immigrants settled Japan and eventually, in the nineteenth century, successfully challenged Chinese influence over the region. In the twentieth century, Japan formally annexed Korea and imposed Japanese language and culture upon the Korean people. Freed by the Allies in 1945, Korea was soon divided by the conflict between Communism and capitalistic democracy. Despite their separation, both Koreas were highly nationalistic and worked to throw off the Japanese influence. These are the chief elements of Korean history necessary to understand the development of Korean martial arts.

Winners of an archery contest in Korea stand together in the winners' circle, ca. 1900.

Winners of an archery contest in Korea stand together in the winners’ circle, ca. 1900.

The earliest evidence in Korea of systems of unarmed combat date from the Koguryo dynasty (a.d. 3-427). The kingdom of Koguryo actually stretched far north of the current Korean border, into much of modern Chinese Manchuria. Korean folk culture is still very much alive in Manchuria today. A number of Koguryo dynasty tombs in what is now Jilin province of the People’s Republic of China are credited by the Koreans as belonging to ancient Korea. These tombs are the Sambo-chong, the Kakjo-chong, and the Muyong-chong. The style depicted in these tombs has been described by martial artists (depending upon the individual artist’s style) as taek-wondo, Hapkido, ssirum, t’aek’kyon, tangsudo, or other Korean arts. Most of these claims are exaggerated. The murals show men with goatees, moustaches, and long hair in loincloths. They seem to be wrestling rather than striking, and as such the murals are best used as early antecedents of Korean ssirum and Japanese sumo. The claims of Korean nationalists regarding these tombs are also tenuous, since the style depicted in the tombs is very similar to that of other tombs of the Han dynasty (206 b.c.-a.d. 220), including those located deep within Han China itself. In many ways, the Koguryo kingdom was heavily influenced by the Chinese Han dynasty. Koguryo in fact served as the easternmost outpost of the Han dynasty, and remained an important Chinese outpost until a.d. 313.


During the Silla and Koryo dynasties, the largest ssirum competitions took place on the holiday of Paekchung or “Day of Servants” (the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month). The champion was named either pan-mugum (finalist) or changgun (general) and was rewarded with an ox as his prize. The kisaeng women (who were comparable to the Japanese geisha) sang and danced at the victory ceremony. Today, the largest competitions take place on the Tano Nol or youth festival (on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month). The winner is named chonha changsa (strongest man under heaven) and receives cash prizes rather than livestock.

Ancient Korea shows Chinese influence not only on its methods of grappling, but also upon its methods of striking. Chinese advisors not only taught their method of striking to the Koguryo army, but also later to the Silla army, the enemies of Koguryo. The Tang dynasty (a.d. 618-907) helped Silla to defeat Koguryo in 668, which established the Silla dynasty (668-935). It was during the Tang dynasty that Chinese striking arts achieved their greatest fame, thanks to the feats of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. The Koreans called the Chinese striking arts subak (striking hand; Shoubo in Mandarin), kwonbop (fist method; quanfa in Mandarin), or simply tangsu (Tang hand).

The Silla dynasty also produced a society of young men called the hwarang (flowering youth). The hwarang was intended to develop young leaders for the Silla kingdom, and it was predated by a similar but unsuccessful experiment with a group of young women known as the wonhwa. These hwarang played songs and music, and roamed over mountains and remote places seeking amusement. They lived according to a code of behavior set forth by the Buddhist monk Wongwang in his Sesok Ogye (Five Common Precepts), written about a.d. 602. The code called for loyalty to one’s king, obedience to one’s parents, honorable conduct toward one’s friends, never retreating in battle, and only killing for a sensible reason. The most famous hwarang was General Kim Yushin (595-673), a master of the double-edged sword. Because of Kim and other heroes, hwarang became known as the “shining knights of the Silla dynasty,” and are still regarded as heroes by modern Koreans.

More important than the military traditions that Korea adopted from China was the influence of the Confucian tradition. Koreans embraced Confucianism so completely that Korea was in many ways more Confucian than was China itself. The only martial art that Confucius praised was archery, so it is not surprising that Korean archers are still famous for their skill. Martial arts in general were frowned upon, since Confucianism prized scholars more than warriors. Korean practice of the martial arts revived briefly during the Japanese invasions led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) in 1592 and 1597, but once the Japanese were driven off, the practice of these arts again declined due to lack of attention at the royal court.

The Koreans continued to emulate Chinese military technique until the nineteenth century. The Korean military used the Chinese work Jixiao Xinshu (New topic for Effective Discipline) as their standard manual until the 1790s. Yi Dok-mu then produced his Mu Yei Do Bo Tong Ji (Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts), a Korean manual that drew from classical Chinese sources. The Mu Yei Do Bo Tong Ji included methods of unarmed combat called kwon-bop and distinguished between the External School of the Sorim Temple (Shaolin Temple) and the Internal School of Chang Songkae (Zhang Sanfeng in Mandarin), the legendary founder of Chinese internal styles (taijiquan).

By the 1890s, there seemed to be only three native martial arts of any great importance. Ssirum was still popular, as was archery, and there was also the street art of t’aek’kyon, which seems to have appeared around the 1790s. In its modern form, t’aek’kyon is an art emphasizing circular kicking, leg sweeps, and leg trapping followed by a throw. T’aek’kyon was discouraged among the intelligentsia, as it was associated with thugs and criminals.

In the late nineteenth century, Japanese influence gradually supplanted Chinese in Korea. In 1894, pro-Japanese members of the Korean cabinet invited the Japanese army to enter Korea and put down a revolt. The Japanese put down the revolt but then refused to leave, which led to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. China came to the aid of Korea, one of its tributary states, but was defeated. The Japanese retained their grip on Korea. Japanese agents murdered Queen Min in 1896, and King Kojong fled the palace and was sheltered in the Russian legation for nearly a year. Russian influence in Korea was ended by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), at which point the United States tacitly recognized Japanese control of Korea with the Taft-Katsura Memorandum (1905). The Japanese forced the Korean king to abdicate in 1907. A Korean assassinated Prince Hirobumi Ito of Japan in 1909, but in 1910 Japan officially annexed Korea.

Japan was determined to turn Korea into a Japanese colony. The Japanese established segregated Korean and Japanese public schools, with the Koreans receiving an inferior education. Thousands of Koreans were killed after making a Declaration of Independence in 1919, believing that American commitment to self-government would bring the United States to their side. It did not. Japanese control tightened over the years. The Japanese language was taught in the schools rather than Korean, and many Koreans raised in that era never learned to read the Korean language. During World War II, the Japanese took over half a million Koreans to Japan as laborers, primarily in mining and in heavy industry, where American bombing was taking its toll. Sixty thousand of these forced laborers died in Japan during the war. Back home, the Japanese army forced Korean women to serve as “comfort women” (prostitutes) for the soldiers. The Japanese were in absolute control of Korea from 1910 to 1945.


Junior high school students compete in a taekwondo tournament in Seoul, Korea, 1986.

Junior high school students compete in a taekwondo tournament in Seoul, Korea, 1986.

Korean youth were forcibly indoctrinated with Japanese culture, including the Japanese martial arts. Judo (in Korean, yudo) was introduced through the Seoul YMCA in 1909. Both judo and kendo (kumdo) were taught in the Japanese-controlled schools. Ssirum competition continued in Korea until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but was then outlawed. T’aek’kyon was outlawed for most of the occupation, although Song Dok-ki (1893-1987) and others continued to train in secret.

After the war, Korean martial arts consisted largely of Japanese styles, including yudo, yusul (jujutsu), kumdo, kwonbop (kenpo), and tangsudo, or kongsudo (karate-do). Koreans who had served in the Japanese army or who had trained with the Japanese police retained a great deal of control in the country, often serving the same role that they had before the Japanese withdrawal. Moreover, Korean students who had studied in Japanese universities often returned with knowledge of karate. Korea was devastated by war, by the occupation, and by its postwar division into Soviet and American spheres of influence.

The nation, of necessity, retained a military economy, fuelled by the conflict between North Korea and South Korea. The Korean military supported the martial arts not only as a method of unarmed combat, but also as a means of building morale. General Choi Hong-Hi in particular supported the development of a Korean form of karate, which he named taek-wondo in 1955.

Korean martial arts were also supported by the Korean Yudo College (now Yong In University), founded in 1953. In 1957 it expanded to a four-year institution, and in 1958 it graduated its first yudo instructors. These professionally trained instructors were responsible for much of the later commercial success of Korean martial arts around the world.

Various kwan (schools) of karate were opened in Korea after 1945. These called their art either kongsudo (empty-hand way), tangsudo (Chinese hands way), or kwonbop (fist method, kenpo in Japanese). Early leaders included Lee Won-Kuk, Ro Pyong-Chik, Choi Hong-Hi, Chun Sang-Sup, Yun Pyung-In, and Hwang Ki. Most of these schools taught Japanese forms up through the 1960s.

A few Koreans stayed in Japan to teach, including Yung Geka, Cho Hyung-Ju, and Choi Yong-I. Choi Yong-I became the most famous of these, and he is best known by his Japanese name, Masutatsu Oyama. Oyama was perhaps the most famous Japanese Karateka (karate practitioner) of the twentieth century. He founded Kyokushinkai Karate, sometimes known as Oyama Karate, and became famous for fighting bulls with his bare hands.

After the Chinese Revolution of 1949, many Chinese fled to Korea. The best known of these instructors taught Praying Mantis kung fu, changquan (long fist), and baguazhang. They tended to teach only Chinese students until the 1960s. Eventually, changquan became the most popular of these systems.

Hapkido developed in the 1950s and 1960s from Japanese jujutsu. Choi Yong-Shul (1904-1986) trained in Daito-ryu Aikijutsu in Japan before 1945. Following the war, Choi returned to Korea and taught a system composed of joint locking, striking, and throwing techniques to various students in Taegu City. Choi used a variety of names for his art, including Yusul (yielding art), Yukwonsul (“soft fist art”), Kido (“energy way”), and finally Hapkido (coordinated energy way). Choi taught at a school run by Suh Bok-Sup, an experienced practitioner of yudo. Among his first young students were Ji Han-Jae and Kim Mu Hyun (also spelled Kim Moo Woong). Suh, Kim, and Ji all eventually moved to Seoul.

Ji Han-Jae was greatly responsible for the spread of Hapkido, both through his own efforts and through the students whom he introduced to the art, including Han Bong-Soo, Choi Seo-Oh, Myung Kwang-Shik, and Myung Jae-nam. Choi Seo-Oh brought Hapkido to the United States in 1964, and Bong-Soo Han popularized the art by providing the choreography for the Billy Jack movies in the 1970s. Myung Kwang-Shik founded the World Hapkido Federation and introduced the use of forms into Hap-kido. Myung Jae-nam linked his style of Hapkido with Japanese aikido and formed the International Hapkido Federation in 1983. Ji also supported the spread of Hapkido in his role as bodyguard for President Park. Ji used his influence to have the Korean Presidential Security Forces train in Hap-kido beginning in 1962, a practice they maintained through the 1990s. Ji also convinced the Dae Woo company to hire Hapkido black belts as security consultants. Ji himself formed the Korea Hapkido Association.

After the beginning of the Korean War, the Republic of Korea (ROK) became ever more nationalistic. There was increasing pressure to develop a Korean form of karate, rather than continue to practice in the Japanese way. A series of national associations formed and disbanded as the Koreans argued over the shape of the new national art. The Korea Kongsudo Association was founded in 1951, followed by the Korean Tangsudo Association in 1953. These eventually merged to form the Subakdo Association in 1959. The Subakdo Association was opposed by the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA), also founded in 1959. Hwang Ki was the head of the Subakdo Association, while General Choi Hong-Hi was the head of the KTA. General Choi had the most political power and the KTA quickly grew in power.

General Choi’s efforts ran into difficulties following the 1961 military coup d’etat in the ROK. The coup ousted the Second Republic and placed General Park Chung Hee in control of Korea. President Park quickly moved to remove his political rivals from power. He appointed General Choi, who had supported the coup, as ambassador to Malaysia in 1962, and for three years General Choi was removed from Korean politics. While he was gone, the KTA changed its name to the Korea Taesudo Association. The KTA also became an affiliate of the Korean Amateur Sports Association (KASA) in 1962 and a member of the Korean Athletic Association in 1964. Many black belts joined the KTA after the government began to support the establishment of national standards. Hwang Ki of the Subakdo Association was the most obvious opponent of growing KTA consolidation, and the KTA often harassed Hwang and his supporters.

During his time in Malaysia, General Choi developed a new set of purely Korean forms to replace the Japanese forms still taught in taek-wondo. Upon his return to Korea in 1965, he again took control of the KTA and changed the name back to the Korea Taekwondo Association. In 1966, KASA began the development of a training center for international competition, hoping to emulate the success of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. General Choi founded the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) in 1966 with an eye to supporting the spread of taekwondo around the world.

Taekwondo continued to gain in importance in Korea in the 1970s. Construction of the Kukkiwon, the Seoul headquarters of taekwondo, began on November 19, 1971, and the building was inaugurated on November 30, 1972. On February 14, 1972, taekwondo became a part of the official curriculum of Korea’s primary schools. It entered the middle school curricula on August 31 and on December 5, the National High School and Middle School Taekwondo Federation was established, followed by the National Collegiate Taekwondo Federation on December 28, 1972.

In 1971, due to increasing tension with President Park, General Choi began to make secret plans to leave Korea and move the ITF to Canada. The KTA did not want the headquarters of taekwondo to move outside of the ROK and severed ties with the ITF, forming a new international organization, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). Ironically, both General Choi and his old rival Hwang Ki left the Republic of Korea in 1974. Choi went to Canada to spread taekwondo, while Hwang went to the United States where he continued to teach tangsudo.

The WTF was officially founded during the first World Taekwondo Championships held at the Kukkiwon in 1973. The WTF continued to support international competition in taekwondo. In 1988, taekwondo became a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympics, and in 2000, taekwondo became an official Olympic sport.

Choi Hong-Hi began teaching taekwondo in North Korea in the 1980s, and the ROK National Intelligence Service has therefore declared that the ITF “is nothing but an unauthorized organization” and that “it is a private organization operated under Northern support rather than a genuine sports organization and has been utilized as a means of expanding Northern influence overseas.” The dispute between the ITF and WTF remains unresolved.

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