Today’s blog is actually a book review. As many know, I am a trained historian and former history teacher. Thus, I have greeted a new wave of more academically rigorous, neutral perspective martial arts books with great enthusiasm. I am also a major book addict, I read non-stop. Finally, with a 2nd degree black belt in WTF Taekwondo (but from a school where the Moo Duk Kwan banner still hung and the curriculum was so different that my instructor was frequently sanctioned by the WIF) and a Korean wife and father-in-law who also trained in Moo Duk Kwan, I was attracted to “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Taekwondo” by Alex Gillis.
The idea that the standard Taekwondo history presented by so many of its Korean teachers is not quite right is hardly a new idea. I trained in the 1980’s and watched them drop the Palgwe forms for the Taegeuk forms. So much for reverence for forms that were supposed to be “thousands of years old.” It also didn’t take a genius to notice that the Palgwe forms resembled karate forms. Of course, then there is the nasty little fact that you can find old “Tang Soo Do” books where you notice that “Tang Soo Do” in Japanese reads “Karate Do” and the forms are in fact SHOTOKAN FORMS.
Alex Gillis is not Korean. He is a long time student of Taekwondo, and at times you still see hints of both naivete and hero worship, but at least he is willing to acknowledge the thousand pound gorilla in the room. The founding fathers of “Tae Kwon Do” were all men who studied Shotokan, but in the post war period were loath to remain affiliated with Japan, a country which had occupied, tortured and humiliated Korea.
The Chung Do Kwan was in the Japanese occupation period a Shotokan school, not much more to it than that. The infamous General Choi Hong-Hi and Nam Tae Hi were also shotokan students…. MAJOR CON: The book remains almost exclusively focused on General Choi and his rivalry with the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). While there are several pictures of Hwang Kee, founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, he is in fact NOT MENTIONED ONCE that I remember. For a history of Taekwondo, to not even mention Hwang Kee, especially when discussing obscuring Japanese origins and the politics of unifying all the Kwan, is regretful.
As I mentioned, the obscuring of the Japanese origins, the creation of a new name and the creation of the “Korean martial art” myth, the false linking of Korean traditional Taekkyeon to modern Taekwondo, etc., is no longer all that controversial and surprising. The political corruption, the unbridled use of violence and questionable morals of the major players will be the real surprise here.
I had long heard that General Choi was a “traitor” who had gone to North Korea. But the extent to which he compromised his morals and coddled a brutal totalitarian regime in the quest to satisfy his own ego will probably still shock you. Un Young Kim, whose signature appears on my black belt certificates, actually ended up in prison because of his corruption, yet you’ll still be shocked to see how far it went, and how unprincipled the men who used to lecture us on morality really were. This book documents how the two “international” federations existed to line the pockets of their leadership, were unquestionably corrupt and in many ways just down right racist.
For those of us in the martial arts industry, you’ll also be shocked to learn that in return for using their Taekwondo muscle to suppress (read as “beat into submission and frequently kidnap”) democratic forces protesting Korea’s military dictatorship, the Korean CIA (KCIA) gave hundreds of thousands to dollars to instructors and helped them set up their Dojang. Korean Taekwondo did not just have “good business sense”, they were being secretly funded by both the KCIA, and even more amusingly, but Reverend Moon’s cult!
Of course, the instructors interviewed all deny that they PERSONALLY benefited, it was always some other instructor…
While I really wish the book had addressed Hwang Kee and the Moo Duk Kwan, and discuss the process by which the Kwan were FORCED to unify, the book still provides tons of sometimes whispered by never openly discussed topics. It is well worth the read. You can find it at
NOW GO TRAIN!