Young Pioneer Tours

Taekwondo: A sport divided

Young North Korean Taekwondo students in Rason, DPRK
Young students of Taekwondo are practicing in Rason, North Korea

When it comes to East Asia martial arts are an integral part of the regions culture. China has Kung Fu, Japan has Karate, and Korea has Taekwondo. Of course, there are multitudes of other martial arts such as Judo but from a western perspective at least, these are the leading fighting styles from each country.

The history of Taekwondo though is a little bit more complicated. Whilst it is the martial of both sides of the Korean peninsula, cold war policies have also come to play a part in things.

History of Taekwondo

When compared with other martial arts from East Asia, Taekwondo is very much a new invention. Korea had previously had its own variations of martial arts known variously as Taekkyon, Taekgyeon, Taekkyeon, or Taekyun (Korean 태껸/ 택견), but this had fallen out of favor during the Imperialist rule of the Japanese Empire. What we now know as Taekwondo started to appear in the 1940s and 50s throughout the now divided country.

In 1952, South Korean President Syngman Rhee witnessed a martial arts display with heavy influence from both Chinese and Japanese disciplines and stated he wanted an indigenous and unified martial arts for the army. The seeds for what would become Taekwondo were sowed.

In 1959, the Korea Taekwondo Association (then Korea Tang Soo Do Association) was established to facilitate the unification of Korean martial arts, with both north and south being represented. In some respects, this marks one of the first real achievements in intra-Korean cooperation, but alas it was not to last much longer.

General choi Hong Hi, founder of Taekwondo
General Choi Hong Hi

In 1966, a certain General Choi Hong Hi broke with the KTA in order to form the International Taekwon-Do Federation, or ITF. Initially it was supported by the government of South Korea, who later withdrew support over their fear of North Korean influence on society.

The KTA later morphed into the southern-sponsored World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), before someone pointed out that WTF was a rather unfortunate acronym and it was changed to World Taekwondo.

The world of Taekwondo today

In short, there are now two global bodies that represent Taekwondo, the International Taekwon-Do Federation and World Taekwondo. With the later being the most globally recognized.

I first found about this schism when meeting a bunch of British guys witnessing a tournament in Pyongyang, who explained the story of the split in Taekwondo. I asked them why they did not follow the bigger organization and they said because the ITF, rather than World Taekwondo, represented a purer form of the national martial art of the Korean people. Not being an expert, I could not say either way, but it cannot be denied just how important North Koreans take this sport.

The tournament in question was the 2017 ITF World Championship in Pyongyang, which was not only considered a prestigious event for the North Koreans to host, but in which they did particularly well. The ITF World Championship 2017 was the last major event of the sport to be hosted in North Korea.

Now, whilst this schism is painted as a North/South thing, in reality it is much more complex. There are usually different organizations in different countries adorning to the styles of either federation. The ITF might be smaller of the two, but it is an independent organization, not a front for the DPRK.

In recent years, there have been on and off talks about some kind of unification of the codes. As of now, however, northern and southern Taekwondo very much have their own flavours.

Would you like to watch some Taekwondo in North Korea? We can arrange delegations for tournaments held in North Korea, Taekwondo lessons and local tournaments for independent travelers to North Korea.

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