The Hangzhou Asian Games that kicked off on September 23 are heating up more and more. South Korea’s first gold medal came from taekwondo.
South Korea dominated the taekwondo competition, securing five gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes. North Korea, which has returned to a major international sports event for the first time in five years, does not compete in taekwondo at the Asiad, although it claims it is the birthplace of the Korean traditional martial art.
Today, we’ll talk about North Korea’s taekwondo with Kim Dong-seon, honorary professor of College of Arts and Sports at Kyonggi University.
On September 1, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that North Korea finished first overall at the 22nd ITF Taekwon-Do World Championships held in Kazakhstan from August 18 to 26. The ITF stands for the International Taekwondo Federation.
But North Korea did not send its taekwondo athletes to the ongoing Asian Games in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. Why? To answer the question, it is necessary to examine how taekwondo became an official event at the Olympics and the Asian Games.
Taekwondo was adopted as an official medal sport at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul. It made its first appearance as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and became a full medal competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The sport has also been confirmed for the 2024 Paris and 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. It means taekwondo will be staying as an official Olympic sport for eight consecutive times.
The World Taekwondo or WT led by South Korea is the sport’s global governing body recognized by the International Olympic Committee or IOC. Taekwondo featured at the championships in Kazakhstan in August is different from that of the Olympics or the Asian Games, because the Kazakhstan event was hosted by the North Korea-led International Taekwondo Federation or ITF, which is not recognized by the IOC.
South Korea’s national sport of taekwondo shares the same root with North Korea’s. But the two versions belong to different organizations. While the WT is led by South Korea, the ITF was based in North Korea. Taekwondo appeared as a demonstration event at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Games before it became an official Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games. As the IOC recognizes the WT only, athletes registered to the ITF are unable to compete in the Olympics or the Asian Games.
The Korean martial art of taekwondo has developed differently in South and North Korea. Modern taekwondo began to take shape systematically in South Korea in the 1960s.
Martial artist Choi Hong-hi(최홍희) is given much of the credit for developing and spreading taekwondo at the time. Choi founded the International Taekwondo Federation in 1966 but he sought asylum in Canada for political reasons in 1972. The following year, South Korea established another international taekwondo organization called the World Taekwondo Federation, which is today’s World Taekwondo. While taekwondo was expanding its influence in South Korea, Choi went to North Korea with the ITF’s demonstration team in 1980 and taught the martial art there. That’s how South and North Korea have led their own taekwondo organizations, the WT and the ITF, respectively.
Since the WT’s taekwondo became an official Olympic event at the 2000 Sydney Games, it has developed into a sport that can be enjoyed by everyone. The ITF’s taekwondo, on the other hand, has more of a focus on martial arts employed in actual fight.
North Korea’s taekwondo actually looked a little different from South Korea’s, as seen in the performance of a North Korean demonstration team at the 2017 World Taekwondo Championships in Muju and at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
The South Korean demonstration team focused more on sports featuring spectacular movements and kicks, while its North Korean counterpart showed powerful and disciplined kicks, punching and fist techniques that may work in real fights.
Whereas South Korean taekwondo athletes wear protective gear on their head and body, North Korean taekwondo practitioners wear gloves and guards on their hands and feet that land punches, and use a mouthpiece only, instead of a protective helmet.
The South Korean WT has evolved into a sport in the course of becoming an official Olympic event. The North Korean ITF, in contrast, maintains the elements of the traditional martial arts that value discipline and actual fights.
According to North Korean media, taekwondo became widespread in the country in the 1980s as a national sport.
According to a North Korean defector who was a taekwondo athlete, North Korean authorities stress that regime founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il played a great role in developing taekwondo.
North Korea completed Taekwondo Hall, which is a large taekwondo facility, in Pyongyang in 1992. It is nurturing athletes and trainers at taekwondo schools that have been created in each province.
North Korea held the Taekwondo World Championships in 2017 under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule.
The country has aired TV series about taekwondo and used the sport for mass rallies, making the most of taekwondo for maintaining its totalitarian rule and collectivism.
Using various promotional materials, North Korea claims that taekwondo originated in the country.
It is a widely-accepted theory that taekwondo was organized systematically in South Korea and North Korea began to spread it in the 1980s. Although taekwondo in South and North Korea came from the same root, there are differences between the two versions as the two Koreas have taken different paths for decades. Here’s a North Korean defector who was a taekwondo athlete.
At first, I was shocked to see South Korean athletes’ fantastic kicking techniques. In North Korean taekwondo, kicks are powerful but rather slow. After watching South Koreans perform, many North Korean athletes changed their training methods.
Some of the taekwondo terms are different. South Korean taekwondo uses the word “poomsae” to refer to patterns, while it is called “teul” in North Korean taekwondo. The two versions also use different terms to indicate the same discipline of sparring. Likewise, their basic movements are both similar and different.
In the South Korean WT, athletes are marked down when they punch the face of their opponents with their fist, while fist attacks to the face are considered an important technique in the North Korean ITF. North Korean athletes wear hand and foot protection gear as well as a mouthpiece. But WT rules require athletes to wear electronic body protectors like pads and helmets with embedded sensors at the Olympics and other international competitions. The WT places athletes into eight weight classes each for men and women, but the ITF, five classes.
In one of the major differences, North Korean taekwondo added a new pattern or “teul,” namely, Juche.
The North created this pattern named after its official ideology of “self-reliance, in an apparent move to spread its juche ideology around the world through taekwondo.
Consisting of 45 movements, the Juche pattern requires techniques with high level of difficulty. North Korea explains that the movements of the forms represent Mt. Baekdu that symbolizes the spirit of the Korean people.
As we all know, sports should never be influenced by political factors. That’s why the ITF has failed to spread around the world, with the number of its members restricted.
Although taekwondo in South and North Korea has developed in a different way, the sport has continued to write the history of inter-Korean harmony and unity. Cross-border taekwondo exchanges began to pick up speed after the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000. A South Korean taekwondo demonstration team visited North Korea and vice versa. Taekwondo organizations of the two sides signed a landmark agreement about mutual recognition and respect in 2014. They tried something new—joint taekwondo demonstrations.
Their first joint performance took place in Sakhalin, Russia, in 2014, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Koreans moving to Russia. South and North Korea staged joint demonstrations at the 2017 World Taekwondo Championships in Muju and also on the sidelines of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games in South Korea. The two organizations also agreed to cooperate to list taekwondo as UNESCO cultural heritage, as part of efforts to integrate the sport.
Even when inter-Korean relations came to a standstill in 2019 due to the breakdown of the North Korea-U.S. summit, the two Koreas conducted their joint taekwondo performances in Europe.
The issue of inter-Korean taekwondo exchanges emerged when South Korea’s taekwondo became a demonstration Olympic sport at the 1988 Seoul Games. 30 years later, on the occasion of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, demonstration performances were held in Seoul and Pyongyang. In November that year, South Korea’s WT and North Korea’s ITF signed an agreement for the integration of taekwondo in Pyongyang and also decided to join forces in listing the sport under UNESCO. Cooperation between the two taekwondo governing bodies contributed to turning taekwondo into a major sport in cross-border exchanges and will raise taekwondo’s status in the global sports community. I believe those efforts will have a positive influence on the drive to make taekwondo stay permanently at the Summer Olympic Games and the Paralympics.
To compete at the Olympics, North Korean athletes registered to the ITF should understand WT rules. Moving beyond, they could hold joint training with South Korean taekwondo practitioners for various technical exchanges, hopefully facilitating the process of integrating the WT and ITF.
Many in the taekwondo community have often noted that the traditional martial art in South and North Korea is rooted in the same origin.
It’s been over 20 years since taekwondo became an official Olympic sport. It has now established itself as a global sport. We hope South and North Korea will resume their bilateral exchanges in taekwondo and bear fruit in cross-border sports exchanges.