Tae Kwon Do (태권도), the art of hand and fist fighting, is South Korea's most popular recreational sport for youngsters. South Korea has the highest density of Tae Kwon Do practitioners in the world, followed by Taiwan.
The history of Tae Kwon Do
Some Koreans will claim that Tae Kwon Do is an ancient martial art unique to the Korean Peninsula. In actuality, Tae Kwon Do as an established independent martial art in its own right is quite recent. Martial arts lineage will suggest that Tae Kwon Do's closest relations are Chinese Kwon Bop, a type of kicking and boxing martial art, and Karate from Japan. Martial arts in Korea were quite late in filtering through from China - only post 1500 - and were only really promoted after the production of an official government compendium on Chinese martial arts known as Muye Jebo.
Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910-1945 had a big influence on Korean martial arts. Up until Japanese occupation, Tae Kyon was most commonly practiced in Korea. Tae Kyon is a martial art which involves kicking and destabilizing your opponent - largely a derivative from the aforementioned Kwon Bop. However, with the arrival of the Japanese, Tae Kyon, along with many Korean cultural practices, was outlawed, and Japanese Karate gyms were set up around Korea. In addition, many Koreans at this time were forced to move to Japan, either for work or study, with the result that some Koreans in Japan became proficient at Judo or Karate from the early Japanese legends. It was mainly from these group of Koreans, upon their return to Korea at the end of the Japanese occupation, who instigated the first Tae Kwon Do gyms. One such case was the the first Tae Kwon Do gym to appear in Seoul, Korea: CHUNG DO KWAN (=‘Blue Wave School’) Founded by Lee Won-Kuk. Lee moved to Japan in 1926 while a teenager, and studied at the main school of Shotokan Karate under the ‘father’ of Karate, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957.)
The name Tae Kwon Do wasn't officially recognized until the 1960's, arguably having been named by General Choi (see below.) Koreans were keen to set it apart from Japanese karate, and made some modifications to the moves and testing procedures. Tae Kwon Do Poomsae are a parallel to Karate Kata, for example.
W.T.F. vs. I.T.F.
Today, there are many different Tae Kwon Do associations, federations, organizations, and so on around the world. The two largest bodies globally are the World Taekwondo Federation (W.T.F.), and the International Tae Kwon Do Federation (I.T.F.), the latter having been set up by General Choi Hong-Hi in the 1960. General Choi is a pivotal figure in the fate of Tae Kwon Do. Initially, with his military background, Tae Kwon Do was emerging as a very aggressive sport, largely practiced by military personnel. However, with divisions in ideas about the philosophical base of Tae Kwon Do between the early founders of the sport, Tae Kwon Do split into different groups, General Choi choosing his own group to be under the I.T.F. banner, while the rest of South Korea adopted the W.T.F. These days, just about every Tae Kwon Do gym in South Korea will be registered with the W.T.F. Thus, any black belt grading you receive should be authorized by the W.T.F. head body in Seoul, the Kukkiwon.
Joining a Tae Kwon Do gym in Korea
here are a handful of Tae Kwon Do gyms in every neighborhood in every city across South Korea. It shouldn't take you long to find one. However, it might take you a long time to find a GOOD one. You should always insist on sitting in on a class, and comparing it with other gyms before you decide on a class style that suits you. As an adult, you must also be prepared to be the only student over the age of twenty years old, and possibly be older than the instructor, called the Sabumnim. There might also be an older manager at the gym, called a Kwangjangnim. It's likely he will have been an instructor who has now handed the teaching reigns over to the junior Sabumnim. If the kids that you watch can do the splits and hold their kicks with a straightened leg, this is a sign the class has tough discipline, and that the instructor has a vision to genuinely improve the standard of his students. If not, then this class is probably akin to a simple physical education lesson you may have had back in elementary school and will not improve your chance for serious progress. You also need to look at how many black belts or red/black stripe belts there are. If there are only color belts in the class, it's a sign that the class doesn't retain its students and you won't have students of a good enough level to train alongside. A class full of black belts shows that the students have been there a long time, and are probably a very close knit and skilled bunch.
There shouldn't be any membership fee or long term obligations when signing up for a South Korean Tae Kwon Do gym. Typically, you pay between KRW 70,000-80,000 each month and KRW 30,000 for the uniform, the dobok. Monthly color belt testing is included in the monthly fee. The first grade black belt exam will cost you KRW 100,000. You can expect to go from white belt to black belt within 12 months to 14 months, depending on the gym. Note that even if you have a color belt from elsewhere, it will be likely you'll have to start again from white belt level if you join a new gym. As a non-Korean, you will only be allowed to take the black belt exam if you have been residing in Korea for a minimum of six months. That's why it's not possible for just anyone to come over and take a black belt exam here whenever they like. Black belt test procedure is very short and simple in Korea, in part owing to the large numbers who take the test. There is a trust that a gym instructor will not be entering you into the black belt test until you have reached a certain ability.
I invited the Elite Hwarang Taekwondo group of Seoul to come and give a demonstration at our workplace in front of a few hundred screaming girls... February 2006.
You should also be aware that few Tae Kwon Do instructors can speak any English, so it may be worth taking someone who really knows about Tae Kwon Do along with you on your gym inspection rounds who can advise you and interpret essential questions if you hope to develop serious ability in this sport.
You will be expected to attend Tae Kwon Do class everyday. Make it clear from the outset if you only want to come a couple of times a week. Then, you can probably also get a discount price. Class times can range from between midday to 11pm depending on the gym. Most likely, as an adult, you will have to attend the last class of the day. Each class lasts for one hour. Some districts which have a concentration of foreigners may have a special foreigners class running which is designed to fit in with typical working schedule of those foreigners. Things to consider: a class of foreigners is likely to be much more motivated to workout harder in my experience, but on the other hand, you can pick up a lot of Korean if you are an only foreigner in a gym and might pick up more about local customs. It's also possible if you find a gym you like far from your home to get transportation with the gym's shuttlebus.
There are several different Tae Kwon Do gym options that foreigners in Korea can opt for. There is the regular ubiquitous gym to be found on many street corners. Most of these are not good quality, therefore, inspection needs to be rigourous until you find a good one. Secondly, there is one unique gym near Gimpo Airport in Seoul offered by 9th Dan Grandmaster Chang Seong-Dong. He offers a homestay/gymstay program with personal training in his upstairs gym. His skills are phenomenal, and he is a good English speaker and host. For more details, visit his website: SangRokGym.com. Finally, Korea has a number of colleges which have full-time Tae Kwon Do and sports programs. It's possible for foreigners to enrol in these courses and apply to reside in Korea on a study permit. However, these courses can be expensive, and foreign participants who cannot speak Korean will be excluded from some of the course modules which are taught in Korean only. Likewise, an inability to speak Korean will make it hard to fit into the very close knit clique groups that are formed by the local students in such places. Whether you can be treated on an equal basis is questionable. Some shorter summer courses are available for foreigners in colleges such as at the most respected Kyung Hee University. Yong-In is the other big name to look into. Most of the Olympic champions to be will be training at these places. These places are not for the frail!
The author of this article chose to come to Korea to teach specifically so that she could train in Tae Kwon Do on a daily basis. With 3 years experience here now, she thinks she knows all the gym operations in place here. Earlier this year, she has completed a comprehensive book about training in Tae Kwon Do in South Korea. Its title is The Taekwondo Diaries - Experiences of Taekwondo in Korea and Beyond. It is available as a free .PDF download for anyone interested to find out more. Please visit The Taekwondo Diaries to download. phone number lookup
- Live and train with Grandmaster Chang Seong Deong of Seoul: SangRokGym.com
- Zoe Smith's The Taekwondo Diaries - ebook about training in Korea: TaekwondoDiaries
- Weblog about Taekwondo in Korea with listings of Korean Taekwondo websites: BlogSpot
- The Korean Tigers' homepage - the BEST Taekwondo demonstration team of South Korea!! The Tigers!