General Choi Hong Hi: the birth and rise of his Art
Choi Hong Hi was born on November 9th, 1918 in the rugged, harsh area of Hwa Dae in the Myong Chun District, in what is now the D.P.R.K. (North Korea). Throughout his childhood he was a very frail and sickly boy which was a constant source of worry for his parents. However, the future General to the South Korean Army showed a strong willed and independent spirit. At the age of 12, as a 5th grade student, he was permanently expelled from school for agitating a mass student demonstration against the Japanese authorities who were in control of Korea at that time.
After his expulsion, Choi’s father sent him to study calligraphy under one of the most famous teachers in Korea, Mr. Han Ok Nam. Han, in addition to his skills as a calligrapher, was also a Master of Taekyon, the ancient Korean Art of Foot Fighting. Mr Han was concerned over the frail condition of his new pupil and began to teach Choi the rigorous exercises of Taekyon to help build his strength and physique.
In 1937 Choi was sent to Kyoto in Japan to further his education. It was there that he met fellow Korean, Mr Him. Him was a teacher of the Japanese Martial Art Karate. With a little over two years of concentrated training, Choi attained the rank of First Dan. These techniques, together with his Taekyon training, were to later provide a solid platform on which our modern day Taekwon-Do would be built. Choi stayed in Japan for the remainder of his schooling, preparatory school, high school, and finally the University in Tokyo. During this time there followed a period of both mental and physical training and experimentation with his new fighting techniques intensified until, with the attainment of his Second Degree Black Belt, he began teaching at a YMCA in Tokyo.
With the outbreak of World War II, Choi was forced into enlisting in the Japanese ‘Volunteer Army’ and shortly thereafter, was posted to North Korea. It was during this time that he became implicated as the ‘Ring Leader’ to a ‘Korean Independence Movement’ and imprisoned in a Japanese Concentration Camp to await the outcome of an 8 month pre-trial examination. It was this period of solitude within the Camp that allowed Choi to formulate and put into practice his ‘Taekwon-Do’. Within a short time, both his cellmate and jailer became students. Eventually, the entire prison courtyard evolved into one gigantic training camp!
In August of 1945 ‘Liberation’ spared Choi from an impending execution order and following his release, he journeyed to Seoul. In January of the following year, Choi was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the new South Korean Army. This was to be the “Launch Pad” for putting Taekwon-Do into a new orbit. Choi rose quickly through the ranks, making Company Commander in Kwang-Ju where the young Second Lieutenant began teaching his entire Regiment his new Martial Art, after which he promoted to First Lieutenant, transferring to Taejon and commanding the Second Infantry Regiment. It was whilst at his new post that Choi began to spread his Art on a greater level promoting his unarmed combat as “Taekwon-Do”. In 1947 he rose to Captain and then Major, and in 1948 he was posted to Seoul as the Head of Logistics, also becoming Taekwon-Do Instructor to the American Military Police School there. Choi was appointed as Chief of Staff of the First Corps in 1952 and was responsible for briefing General MacArthur during his visits to Kang-Nung.
1953 was an eventful one for Choi, for both his military career and the progress of his Martial Art Taekwon-Do. He wrote the first authoritative book in Korea on ‘Military Intelligence’ and also co-ordinated and commanded the ‘elite’ 29th Infantry Division, which eventually became the spearhead for Taekwon-Do. In 1954 he appointed Nam Tae Hee as his Military Advisor, Colonel Nam was later to command the 35th Infantry Division in which my father, Rhee Ki Ha, served.
Officially, 1955 signalled the beginning of Taekwon-Do as a formally recognized martial art in Korea. During that year, a special Board was formed to formalise and officially name General Choi’s Martial Art. The Board included leading Instructors of the Art, Korean Historian’s, prominent leaders of Korean Society and Heads of Korean State. On April 11, the Board, summoned by the General, decided on the name ‘Taekwon-Do’ which had been submitted by him. This single unified name replaced all others that had previously been used to describe the un-armed Military combat that was being practised within the Korean Army. Confusing terms such as Dang Soo, Gong Soo, Taek Kyon, Kwon Bup and Tae Soo where now eradicated for good.
In 1959, Taekwon-Do escaped its national boundaries with The Founder and nineteen of his top Black Belts touring the Far East. The tour was a major success, astounding all spectators with the excellence of the Taekwon-Do techniques. In this same year, General Choi was elevated to two illustrious posts; President of his newly formed ‘Korea Taekwon-Do Association’ and Deputy Commander of the 2nd Army in Tae-Gu.
He also published his first Korean book on Taekwon-Do which became the model for the 1965 edition of the Encyclopaedia.
In 1961, Choi returned to Korea as the ‘Director of Intelligence’ for the Korean Army. Later that same year, he assumed command of the Combat Armed Command with direction of the infantry, artillery, armoured, signal and aviation schools. Incidentally, 1961 was the year of maturation for both General Choi’s military career and Taekwon-Do, with the command of the largest training centers in Korea and his newly assigned command of the 6th Army Corps. He also took command of the U.S Army’s 7th Infantry Division thus becoming the first General in Korean history to exercise military control over foreign troops.
In 1962, Choi was appointed Korean Ambassador to Malaysia, and of course, Taekwon-Do soon spread. In 1963, the Taekwon-Do Association of Malaysia was formed and reached national acceptance when the Art was demonstrated at the Merdeka Stadium at the request of the Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rhaman. In the same year, two important milestones took place; the famous demonstration at the United Nations building in New York, and the introduction of Taekwon-Do to the Armed Forces of Vietnam under Major Nam Tae Hee. In February 1964, the Singapore Taekwon-Do Association was formed and the groundwork laid for forming associations in the outer reaches of Brunei. This was indeed a new era for Taekwon-Do in that The Founder was also able to draw a clear line between Taekwon-Do and Karate by completely eliminating all the remaining terminology of Karate.
In 1965 The Founder retired from the Army as a two star General and was appointed by the Government of the Republic of Korea to lead a goodwill mission to West Germany, Italy, Turkey, United-Arab Republic (UAE), Malaysia, and Singapore. This trip is significant in that The Founder, for the first time in Korean history, declared Taekwon-Do as the National Martial Art of Korea. This was the basis for the formation of the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) as it is known today. In 1966, the dream of the sickly young student of calligraphy, who rose to Korean Ambassador and President of the most respected Martial Art in the world, came true. On the 22nd of March 1966, The International Taekwon-Do Federation was formed with Associations in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, West Germany, the United States of America, Turkey, Italy, Arab Republic of Egypt and South Korea.
In 1967, General Choi observed the formation of the United Kingdom Taekwon-Do Association (UKTA) under my father, Rhee Ki Ha, who had recently arrived there following his stint in Singapore as Chief Instructor. In the same year the Hong Kong Taekwon-Do Association formed, both were affiliated to the ITF.
In August 1970, the year I was born, the General, accompanied by my Father, Master Rhee Ki Ha, left for a tour of twenty countries. They travelled throughout South East Asia, Canada, Europe and the Middle East conducting International Seminars to help spread the Art and the ITF into a cohesive force.
In 1972, the Founder moved the Headquarters of International Taekwon-Do Federation, with the unanimous consent of member countries, to Toronto, Canada. It was expected that Taekwon-Do would have a logistic advantage from the move. In 1973, General Choi and a specially selected ITF Demonstration Team, consisting of my Father (Rhee Ki Ha), Kong Young II, Park Jong Soo, Pak Sun Jae and Choi Chang Keun, all 7th degree Masters, toured Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. A total of 13 countries were visited and new ITF branches established in 5 of these countries. The tour was an overwhelming success with a total of more than 100,000 people watching the demonstration in Egypt alone. At each stop, General Choi and the Demonstration Team were hosted by senior ranking representatives of the local governments.
The birth of Taekwon-Do ‘Competition’ was in 1974, with the First World Championships being held in Montreal, Canada. The event was opened by the Founder and also formalised and set the foundation for the ITF Competition Rules. Later this year General Choi led the 4th ITF Demonstration Team consisting of 10 of the world’s top Instructors, which included my Father, to Jamaica, Curacao, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Surinam.
In 1975, Taekwon-Do alone had the privilege to demonstrate at the Sydney Opera House here in NSW, for the first time since its opening. General Choi also visited Greece and Sweden to conduct Seminars later in this year. In November of the same year he went to Holland to declare the opening of the First European Taekwon-Do Championships in Amsterdam. The Founder was to return to Australia in 1977 (the year I started Taekwon-Do) also touring New Zealand, Malaysia and Japan. It was during an interview in Tokyo that the Founder publicly denounced the President of South Korea, Park Jung Hee, who he believed to be using his Art for political gain.
In May of 1978, General Choi toured Malaysia, Pakistan, Kenya and South Africa accompanied by Rhee Ki Ha. In this year he led the 5th ITF Masters Demonstration Team consisting of Rhee Ki Ha, Choi Chang Keun, Park Jung Tae and Liong Wai Meng to Sweden, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. In September of the same year the Second World Taekwon-Do Championships was held in Oklahoma City, USA.
The All Europe Taekwon-Do Federation (AETF) was officially formed in June 1979 in Oslo, Norway by Master Rhee Ki Ha. After this historic event General Choi toured Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, France and Greenland accompanied by Master’s Rhee Ki Ha and Khang Su Jong. In November of that year he led the 6th International Taekwon-Do demonstration team consisting of Rhee Ki Ha, Kim Jong Chan, Choi Chang Keun, the late Park Jung Tae, Lee Jong Moon, Chung Kwang Duk, Kim Suk Jun and Michael Cormack to Argentina.
The year 1980 was indeed an emotional one for the Father of Taekwon-Do. Accompanied by my Father, Master Rhee Ki Ha and 14 second generation, Senior Instructors, (including the Founder’s son, Choi Joong Hwa) he made a monumental trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This was to be the first time Taekwon-Do would be demonstrated to the people of North Korea. In November, the first AETF Championships were hosted Master Rhee Ki Ha, Founder of AETF and Father of British Taekwon-Do. Held in London, UK, 18 countries participated.
In January of 1981, the Founder made his third visit to Australia, accompanied by Master Choi Chang Keun, to open the First Pacific Taekwon-Do Championships in Queensland. During this visit he observed the formation of the South Pacific Taekwon-Do Federation and the Australian Taekwon-Do Federation. In June of the same year, the Founder led the 8th ITF Demonstration Team to Tokyo, Japan.
The Founder and Master Rhee Ki Ha continued to promote Taekwon-Do globally throughout the 1980s with tours to Greenland, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Austria, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Finland. He also attended the First Intercontinental Taekwon-Do Championships held in Naples, Italy and in January 1983, he made a visit to Colorado, U.S.A accompanied by Master Lee Suk Hi, the President of North America Taekwon-Do Federation, to promote Mr Charles E Sereff, the President of the U.S. Taekwon-Do Federation, (USTF) for 7th degree.
In April 1984, ITF President, General Choi declared the opening of the Fourth World Taekwon-Do Championships held in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K, hosted by Master, Rhee Ki Ha. In the same month, he visited Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, accompanied by my Father, Charles Sereff and Kim Yong Kyu to prove that only the ITF was the true world governing body of Taekwon-Do. In September, the Founder invited Senior ITF Instructors Rhee Ki Ha, Lee Suk Hi, Park Jung Tae and Choi Joong Hwa to Pyongyang, DPRK, to finalize the publication of the Taekwon-Do Encyclopedia. It was during this meeting that it was decided the ITF Headquarters should move from Canada to Vienna, Austria under the guidance of my Father Master Rhee Ki Ha.
In the following month, General Choi visited New York City along with Masters Lee Suk Hi and Park Jung Tae to declare open the 3rd annual General Choi Cup in North America. In December the 5th ITF Congress meeting was held in Vienna, where it was unanimously decided to relocate the ITF there by March of the next year. Also at the meeting, President Choi Hong Hi was re-elected for another term as President. My Father, Master Rhee Ki Ha and Master Lee Suk Hi were elected as Vice Presidents with Master Park Jung Tae voted in as Secretary-General.
Without doubt, 1985 was one of the most significant years for the founder of Taekwon-Do as he was able to finish the documentation of all of the techniques he had invented and researched by publishing the first edition of the 15 volume Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. He was also able to establish a strong foundation for the spreading of his art to the entire world, especially the socialist as well as the Third World countries by moving the I.T.F Headquarters to Vienna, the capital city of Austria. 1985 also marked the 30th anniversary of Taekwon-Do with celebratory events being held all around the world, many of these events were graced with the presence of the Father of Taekwon-Do, Gen. Choi Hong Hi. For me, it also marked the year of my first ever General Choi Hong Hi Seminar which proved to be the first of many.
1987 was a significant year for General Choi because he showed once again the indomitable spirit as well as perseverance to the Taekwon-Do world by declaring the 5th World Championships in Athens, Greece, despite persistent interference from the South Korean Government. Later this year the Founder attended the 20th Anniversary Dinner & Awards Ceremony of the United Kingdom Taekwon-Do Association (UKTA) hosted by President and Founder, Master Rhee Ki Ha. This would be my second Seminar under the Founder.
In 1988, the Founder participated in two important events. In May, the Hungarian Government hosted the 6th World Championships in Budapest and later this year The Founder was at last able to realise a final long awaited wish, to introduce and teach his art to the Soviet Union by leading an ITF Demonstration Team to Moscow. With this move he completed the final chapter in his bid to see his beloved Art pioneered on all four corners of the world.
Following my initial introductions to The General at the age of 5 and 7 (and being paraded before him as the first ‘new born’ shortly after my birth) my own personal experiences with The Founder of Taekwon-Do are one of fortune. I was fortunate to be honoured with the task of travelling, assisting and living with him during his ITF Seminars in London and France in 1999 and 2000. A monumental learning curve for any Taekwon-Do Student, and I am grateful to both my Father and The Founder for being given the opportunity. I do not think there was a waking moment during those tours that the General stopped tutoring me, and though mentally and physically overwhelming, it is a period in my life that I look back on with enormous pride.
The Founder of Taekwon-Do’s final years were marked by his efforts to return to North Korea, where he introduced his Art in 1980. He won further favour with the DPRK Government when he replaced pattern ‘Ko dang’, named after a North Korean Democratic Christian (allegedly executed by the Red Army in 1946) to the pattern we know today as ‘Juche’. Juche is a philosophical idea of “Self-reliance” a view strongly followed by former North Korean Leader Kim Il Sung. Although General Choi’s intention had been a re-conciliation towards his homeland, the South Korean Government, unfortunately, saw it as treasonous.
Shortly before his passing in Pyongyang The Founder, General Choi Hong Hi was able to announce through the ITF Website, “I am the man who has the most followers in the world”
With the impact of his Art and over 50 million Taekwon-Do practitioners world-wide, following 50 years of promotion, that statement is undeniable.