History of Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art whose history is as paradoxical and contentious as is that of the country in which it was born. Everybody agrees that the Korean term "Tae" means to smash with the foot, "Kwon" means to smash with the hand, and "Do" means art or way of life. Most experts also accept that the name "Tae Kwon Do" was officially adopted to describe Korea's most popular martial art in 1955. But the foundation upon which Tae Kwon Do was built and its history since 1955 depend very much on who you ask.

Ancient Foundations

The peninsula that is today called Korea has had over 4000 years of history. One legend holds that the peninsula was first ruled by a legendary figure named Dan-Gun in 2333 BC. According to legend, Dan-Gun's mother was a bear changed to human form and his father was descended from heaven.

During most of its history, Korea has not been one unified country. It has, instead, been a variety of different kingdoms occupying different portions of the peninsula at different times. Even today the Korean peninsula is split between the totalitarian communist state of North Korea and the fledgling democratic state of South Korea. One reason for this devisiveness is that Korea has been repeatedly invaded and dominated by its geographic neighbors:   Mongolia, China, and Japan.

Because Korea is smaller and less powerful than the surrounding countries, the people of Korea saw the need to study martial arts early on in order to defend themselves from their more agressive neighbors. Murals depicting men free sparring have been found on the ceiling of the Muyong-chong royal tomb which was constructed by the Koguryo dynasty sometime between 3 and 427 AD. Stone reliefs carved into the cave walls of Suck-Kool-Am in southern Korea, and dated at the sixth century AD, depict men performing high section blocks quite similar to those performed in modern day Tae Kwon Do.

As early as the seventh century AD Buddhism arrived on the scene. Zen Buddhist monks travelled from India to China and then eventually to the Korean peninsula. These monks brought to Korea both their religion and the martial art known as Kwon Bop.

At approximately the same time, during the Silla dynasty, a youth group known as the Hwa-Rang came into being. This group, also called "The Flower of Youth", trained its members in the arts of war, literature, and community service. Their code was:

  1. Loyalty to the king
  2. Obedience to parents
  3. Faithfulness to friends
  4. Never surrender in war
  5. Avoid unnecessary killing

The martial art practiced by the Hwa-Rang was known as Soo Bak Do or Taek Kyon. It was the art of kicking, punching, and butting and remained popular in Korea for many centuries. A modern day martial art called Hwa-Rang Do, which takes its name in honor of this youth group, is practiced both inside and outside of Korea today.

A benefit of having been regularly invaded is that Koreans were exposed to a variety of cultures, languages, and martial arts. Over time the circular motions of Kung-Fu from China, and the more abrupt, linear motions of Karate fom Japan, were blended into the Korean martial arts. Both Kung-Fu and Karate added a wide variety of hand techniques to the primarily kicking martial arts native to Korea. This is especially notable in the less-well-known Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do whose students practice a 50-50 split of hand and foot techniques as opposed to the 30-70 split seen in typical Tae Kwon Do practicants. "Tae" (kicking) comes first and foremost in Tae Kwon Do.

All of these influences from surrounding countries, and even as far away as India, have surely had an impact on Tae Kwon Do. But did martial arts start first in India, Okinawa, Korea, or somewhere else? Were the Korean martial arts primarily influenced by others, or did they do the influencing themselves? These questions are hotly debated. Everyone has their own opinion, but no one so far has made a case strong enough to win over the majority to their point of view.

Modern History

The modern history of Tae Kwon Do is even more convoluted than the ancient version. While there are dozens of Tae Kwon Do organizations in the United States alone, world-wide most organizations are allied with one of two Korean federations:  the ITF (International Tae Kwon Do Federation) or the WTF (World Tae Kwon Do Federation).

The ITF was founded by General Choi Hong Hi, the man who first used the term "Tae Kwon Do". As such, it can make a pretty strong case for being the first and more traditional version of Tae Kwon Do. On the other hand, it is the WTF that first held a world-wide Tae Kwon Do tournament and it is the WTF that managed to get Tae Kwon Do into the Olympics.

These two different federations were founded in the 1960s and 1970s and have spent their time since then growing into truly global organizations. They have also spent their time promoting two different versions of the history of Tae Kwon Do, each trying to discredit the other organization. The ITF calls all organizations not affiliated with them, "Imposters." The WTF, on the other hand, pretends General Choi and the ITF don't even exist.

The ITF Version

General Choi says that although he holds a black belt in both the ancient Korean art of Taek Kyon and in the Japanese art of Karate, Tae Kwon Do is not merely a blending of these other martial arts. According to him, he felt the inspiration to create a new Korean martial art shortly after the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule at the end of World War II. The Japanese had effectively dominated Korea from the latter part of the 19th century until 1945.

In 1946, Choi was commisioned as a second lieutenant in the newly formed Republic of Korea army. He says the removal of the Japanese oppressors of Korea inspired him to create a new martial art which would be truly Korean. His position in the army allowed him to teach it to a large audience. Choi says that he completed the majority of his work on this new martial art (including the creation of new forms each named for an important figure in Korean history) by the end of 1954. The name "Tae Kwon Do" was officially adopted by a commision of Korean martial arts masters on April 11, 1955. Thereafter Choi devoted himself to spreading this new martial art throughout Korea, and then throughout the world.

In 1959 the Korea Tae Kwon Do Association was formed and General Choi was installed as president of the organization. That same year he published the first major text on Tae Kwon Do. Although this first text was printed in Korean only, it was the model for his later English text, "Tae Kwon Do The Art of Self-Defence," which was published in 1965. The 1965 version of the text described the original 20 Tae Kwon Do forms each of which were named after an important figure in Korean history. On March 22, 1966 the ITF was officially formed. The first "World Tae Kwon Do Championships" (the ITF Championships that is) were held in Montreal, Canada in 1974. In 1985 General Choi published his, "Encyclopedia of Tae Kwon Do," which is the most comprehensive documentation of the subject to date. He has also added four more forms to bring the total number of ITF forms to 24.

General Choi has circled the globe many times giving seminars to the ITF faithful and converting others to the ITF system of Tae Kwon Do.

The WTF Version

The World Tae Kwon Do Federation version of history is a very different tale indeed. According to Richard Rhin Moon Chun, one of the highest ranking members of the WTF, the birth of Tae Kwon Do was a team effort, not the one-man-show the ITF claims. Chun states, "After the liberation of Korea, in 1945, a number of Koreans began a conscientious effort to revitalize the art of Tae Kwon Do as a national sport." He agrees that the title "Tae Kwon Do" was officially adopted to describe Korea's martial art in 1955. However it is from this point forward that the two histories diverge.

Chun makes no mention of the "Korea Tae Kwon Do Association" founded by General Choi in 1959, but instead states that the "Korean Tae Kwon Do Association" with President Young Chai Kim was founded in 1965. Master Un Young Kim was elected president of this organization in 1970. It was under Kim's leadership that the first "World Tae Kwon Do Championship" (the WTF Championship) took place in Seoul, South Korea in 1973. It was attended by competitors from 19 countries and perhaps more importantly, beat the ITF to the punch by one year.

According to Chun, it was immediately following this tournament that representatives of all of the attending countries formed the World Tae Kwon Do Federation with Master Un Young Kim as president. It was Master Kim who lead the charge to get Tae Kwon Do into the Olympics. Tae Kwon Do first appeared as a demonstration game in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. It was a demonstration sport once again in Spain in 1992 and finally become a full-fledged sport at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The Difference

One might fairly ask, "What difference does it make?" Either way, Tae Kwon Do comes from Korea. Either way it evolved from a variety of martial arts from inside and outside of Korea. Either way it emphasizes personal and spiritual developement in addition to developing physical techniques.

The answer is that it makes a great deal of difference to the members of the ITF and the WTF both of whom believe themselves to be the keepers of the "real" Tae Kwon Do. And there are some real differences between the brands of Tae Kwon Do practiced by these two Federations.

One difference is in the hyungs or forms practiced. The ITF now calls forms, "Tuls". The Tuls they practice were created by General Choi, each one having been named for some person or concept significant to Korean history. Many of these Tuls were created in the 1950s and have had only minor changes made to them since then. Others were created in later years and have been taught to his black belt students through the many seminars he teaches each year.

The WTF on the other hand has gone through several different sets of forms which they now call, "Poom-Se". The original Poom-Se practiced by the WTF were Ki-Cho one through three, and Pal-Gwe one through eight. Most WTF schools no longer practice these, choosing instead to practice Tae-Kook (Tae-Guek) one through eight for students who have not yet earned their black belts. At the black belt level, there exists an entirely different set of Poom-Se each named for some important person or concept from Korea.

A second difference is the terminology (both Korean and English) used. While both federations have essentially similar techniques and activities, they use different words to describe those activities. For example, free sparring is currently called "Ya Yu Mat Soki" by the ITF. This same activity goes by the name "Kyo-Lu-Ki" in the WTF. The same holds true for virtually any stance, block, punch, or strike imaginable. The exceptions to this rule are the three most basic kicks in either version of Tae Kwon Do. The front snap kick, the roundhouse kick, and the side kick are called, "Ap Chaki", "Doll-Rye Chaki", and "Yeop Chaki" regardless of which federation you belong to.

A third difference is in the rules that govern free sparring in the ITF and WTF. In the ITF, students are obliged to wear foam rubber hand and foot pads aimed, primarily, at minimizing damage to their opponents. These pads must cover the entirety of the hand and the top of the foot and toes. Students are allowed to kick and punch to both the head and body of their opponent. Because it is legal to strike to the face, the risk of a broken nose is quite real. Illegal targets are the back, back of the head, and anywhere below the belt.

In WTF free sparring, students wear cloth-covered padding on their arms, legs, and part of the foot. They wear thick chest padding similar in appearence to, although much lighter than, a bullet proof vest. Finally they also wear foam rubber head gear. The primary purpose of this equipement is the protection of the person wearing it. WTF competitors do not typically wear anything on their hands and punching to the face is illegal. Because WTF competitors wear more protection, they are expected to strike with more power.

In order to score a point in competition, "trembling shock" must be delivered. In other words if your opponent is not knocked over, or at least knocked backwards, by your strike, you do not earn a point. Consequently it is quite difficult to score a point by punching in WTF Tae Kwon Do. In fact many competitors don't even bother evading or blocking punches. They just keep walking forward in the hopes of getting close enough to land a solid kick. Because there are no legal attacks to the face, you are much less likely to get a broken nose in WTF free sparring. On the other hand because you have to strike so hard to earn a point, you are more likely to get a broken rib or a concusion than in ITF free sparring.

So differences do exist between the ITF and the WTF. Are the differences great enough to warrant the animosity each federation holds for the other? You decide.

In the meantime, the tens of millions of people who practice Tae Kwon Do are split into two halves as surely as Korea is split into North and South.


  1. Cho, Hee Il, The Complete Tae Kwon Do Hyung Volume 1 (Los Angeles: Hee Il Cho, 1984), pp. 15-17
  2. Choi, Hong Hi, "The History of ITF Tae Kwon Do", http://www.tkd-itf.org/, October 1998, pp. 1-3
  3. Chun, Richard, Beginning Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do Volume 1 (Santa Clarita, California: Ohara, 1975, 23rd printing in 1995), pp. 9-12
  4. Chun, Richard, Tae Kwon Do:  The Korean Martial Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), pp. 2-9
  5. Clinton, Judy, "Torts to Tae Kwon Do", Tae Kwon Do Times, Vol. 7, No. 1 (November 1986), pp. 46-53
  6. Crompton, Paul, The Complete Martial Arts (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1992), pp. 168-178
  7. Franks, A., "ITF Tae Kwon Do and Imitators", http://www.tkd-itf.org/, October 1998, p. 1
  8. Pow-key, Sohn and Woo-keun, Han, A Handbook of Korea (Seoul: Korean Overseas Information Service, 1979), pp. 69-167
  9. World Tae Kwon Do Federation, http://www.wtf.org/, October 1998, p. 1
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