Blown apart: the divided world of taekwondo

Sebastien BERGER
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In a photo taken on September 21, 2017 team members from North Korea react following their win against Russia fight during the womens team event of the 20th ITF World Taewondo Championships in Pyongyang

As time ticked away in the final bout of the taekwondo championships in Pyongyang, the North Korean women fighters counted down anxiously, leaping up to hug each other tearfully when their compatriot secured the team sparring gold and the title of world champions.

But they are just one world champion among many in a sport that is even more divided than the nuclear-tension-wracked Korean peninsula where it has its origins.

This week's contest was held under the auspices of the North Korean-led International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF), with a portrait of its founder, South Korean general Choi Hong-Hi, looking on.

And in a history entwined with feuds and politics –- along with the occasional assassination plot –- the sport has accumulated at least three other rival world championships.

It is an "unfortunate" situation, acknowledges Wayne Brown, president of ITF England and a 9th grade grand master.

Korean martial artist Choi was conscripted into Japan's occupying army in the 1940s. He was arrested for trying to escape and condemned to death, but Tokyo surrendered three days before his scheduled execution.

Joining the South Korean army, where he rose to general rank, he developed and codified an amalgam of different Korean and Asian martial arts, with an emphasis on mental discipline, into what he called taekwondo – the art of the hand and the foot.

He founded the ITF in 1966, but a few years later fell out with South Korea's military-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee and went into self-imposed exile, taking himself and his organisation to Canada.

Later he became a frequent visitor to Pyongyang, where he died in 2002 and was buried in the Patriotic Martyrs Cemetery.

He "had once taken the wrong way and aimed a gun at the compatriots", the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said this week, but had gone through "remorse and agony" and contributed to Korean reunification and the "orthodox martial art of the Korean nation".

South Korea went on to set up the World Taekwondo organisation, which is now the mainstream, recognised as the sport's sanctioning body by the International Olympic Committee. It held its world championships in Muju, in the South, in June.

- Splitters -

The ITF, though, has split into three different organisations, all sharing the same name with a hyphen in "Taekwon-do", with varying headquarters and holding rival world championships.

Choi passed the leadership of his organisation, now based in Vienna, to North Korean officials, and North Korean athletes dominated the medal table in Pyongyang.

Another ITF is led by Choi's son Choi Jung-Hwa, who split from his father shortly before his death. It is based in Britain's West Drayton and its world championships are in Buenos Aires next year.

In media interviews Choi has admitted plotting to murder then South Korean leader Chun Doo-Hwan during a 1982 visit to Canada under orders from Pyongyang. He served a year in prison in Canada and was also indicted in the South for spying, but not prosecuted.

A second ITF schism happened after Choi senior died, creating a third ITF, based in Benidorm, Spain.

There are yet more organisations – the World Taekwondo Alliance is headquartered in Pearcy, Arkansas, there is an International Taekwon-do Association in Grand Blanc, Michigan, and the World Taekwondo Association is in Nenagh, Ireland.

- Spirit of struggle -

Olympic taekwondo uses noticeably fewer hand strikes than the ITF form, which fighters in Pyongyang insisted was truer to Choi's original vision.

"We actually are purely a martial art whereas that's more of a sport," said ITF England's Brown.

There have been attempts at rapprochement, but in Seoul a spokesman for World Taekwondo -– which earlier this year dropped the word 'Federation' from its name to avoid the infelicitous acronym WTF –- said: "It's difficult to talk about the prospect of uniting the federations."

An ITF delegation performed a demonstration at this year's WT world championships in the South, where they were pictured with President Moon Jae-In, but plans for WT to reciprocate in Pyongyang came to naught.

"That didn't work out because of the missile issue between South and North Korea," said the WT spokesman.

Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its weapons programmes under leader Kim Jong-Un, conducting a sixth nuclear test earlier this month which came after a series of rocket launches, earning North Korea an eighth set of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

But the tests were an inspiration to Kim Su-Ryon, one of the North Korean women's team who won gold.

"We were able to win this championship as we fought with the spirit of struggle, like the scientists and technicians who contributed to the launch of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-12 and the H-bomb test," said the 26-year-old.

"And also we fought with the idea that the Supreme Leader was watching us."