Won Kuk Lee Interview

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It is a bit of surprise to find the man often credited with being the father of modern Tae Kwon Do and a former Korean government official living in the United States.

My wife and I emigrated to the U.S. in 1976 at the invitation of General William Westmoreland who commanded the United States' troops in Vietnam. The general was my student in the 1960's when I served for a time as Tae Kwon Do instructor to the U.S. military.  As you can see, the general made several gifts as tokens of his esteem. I had some trouble getting an immigrant visa from the American Embassy when I first applied due to my record of arrest in Korea, but once the general made contact with the embassy, they couldn't process the visa fast enough.

You must have had many other notable students during your long career in the martial arts.

Yes, there have been many students over the years. They can be found around the world today. Some you may know are Un Kyu Um (Kukkiwon Vice President), Jae Chun Ko, Chong Myung Hyun, Chun Ki Paek, Chong Lim Woo, Pong Seok Kim, Seok Kyu Kim, Sang Hoon Lee, former Defense Minister of the Republic of Korea, and Jun Yoo Eung.

Korean children today start to learn Tae Kwon Do as a form of physical education in the grade school. You grew up during the period of Japanese occupation of Korea when martial arts were forbidden to Koreans. How did you become involved in the martial arts?

In the old days, martial arts training was started during the teen years or early twenties. I had an interest in the martial arts as a young man. When I was young, I visited An Gup Dong, a street in Seoul where I met a Mr. Kim. He seemed very old to me then, but he was only in his sixties. He said that about 80 years earlier (prior to the Japanese occupation), there were three traditional Korean fighting styles called Tae Kyon taught inside Chang Chung Dong Park in the city. The training went on for some time, but there were several groups or gangs whose members were misusing the martial arts, so the government put a stop to the training. The Korean Cultural Ministry has an illustrated history of Tae Kyon.

Of course, in the days of occupation, it was forbidden by the Japanese to teach or study any martial arts including Tang Soo Do, a Korean style. When I went to university in Japan seventy years ago Tang Soo Do training was very popular there. I was very interested in it. While attending the university, I practiced Tang Soo Do and came to realize that this type of skill was very important to have. I became aware that our Korean national history and legacy of martial arts were being kept from us. I felt very bad about this. Outside Korea, I was allowed to study Japanese and Chinese martial arts.

Grandmaster Lee and Gen. Choi Hong Hi, founder of ITF

As a young man, I visited martial arts centers including the birthplace of Karate in Okinawa, Kung Fu centers in Henan and Shanghai in China, and other places. I studied Karate with Sensei Hunagoshi, founder of Gojurhu Karate and a Japanese national hero. In retrospect, the main differences among Tang Soo Do, Karate, and Kung Fu were in how pressure points were used and attacked.

While traveling as part of my martial art studies, I never thought that.Korea would win independence from Japan. I wanted to return to Korea and help my people learn about martial arts. When I returnd in 1944, one year before independence, I applied to the occupation government to be allowed to teach Tang Soo Do in Korea. I was insistent, but the government rejected my request twice. The third time, they finally approved. I taught Tang Soo Do for the first time in Korea at the Yung Shin School Gymnasium in Sa De Mun, Ok Chun Dong district in Seoul.
So you were already teaching martial arts in Korea when independence came?

Yes, when independence came (August 15, 1945), there were social and political troubles across the country. There was civil unrest and violence associated with the establishment of the independent government. Those were difficult times. Gangs and political groups fought each other in the streets. Some of the gangs used Tang Soo Do as a fighting technique, so the government tried to discourage the teaching of Tang Soo Do in the same way that Tae Kyon was suppressed after it was misused. The government refused to allow the teaching of Tang Soo Do in any government facilities such as public schools.

At that time in Korea, there were no professional martial artists. The master supported himself by some other profession and taught chosen students on his own time. So the Tang Soo Do school was a nonprofit organization that would be associated with a church or school much as Boy Scout troops are in the United States today.

That's correct. When the government pulled its support, I was able to keep my school going by finding other facilities for teaching. This was the time when I established Chung Do Kwan at Tae Go Temple (Tae Go Sa in Korean), in Seoul. We were forced to move to Kwan Yung Kwan, the Chinese Hwa Kwang school in Seoul and not under government control. We later moved to No.80 Kyun Ji Dong district in Seoul. Although we had no financial support, I used my own funds and sought contributions to promote Tang Soo Do. The lessons were popular and many people wanted to get the training. We had to be careful to recruit and keep only the best, most highly motivated students, especially because of the bad image the gangs had given Tang Soo Do. The students we kept included some of the prominent figures in modern Tae Kwon Do. We worked hard to keep up the quality of the instruction and of our students, and to promote Tang Soo Do as a positive influence in Korean society. We established the Korean rank system with the various clubs and dans. Our main objective was to instill discipline and honor in young people left without strong moral guidance in those troubled times.
A year after getting permission to teach, we had succeeded in convincing the government that Tang Soo Do was beneficial, and we were able to again obtain financial support from public institutions for our program. Finally, in 1947, at the Seoul City YMCA gymnasium in Chong Lo Ku, we held a martial art exhibition. The public response was tremendous. People everywhere wanted to participate in Tang Soo Do. The Korean National Police headquarters staff, Seoul University students, military servicemen, and police forces all began to train in Tang Soo Do. At last, the government made support of Tae Kwon Do a national priority.

With all this attention at the national level, was your group involved in politics?

Unwillingly. At that time, the headquarters of Chung Do Kwan had 5,000 members. Through Cae Yun, the head of the Korean national police force, modern Korea's first President, Syngman Rhee, requested that all Chung Do Kwan members apply for membership in the Korean Republican party. In exchange for this enrollment, I was offered the post of Minister of Internal Affairs. I was concerned that the government's motive in enrolling 5,000 trained martial artists in the President's political party was not to promote justice, so I politely declined the offer. As soon as the offer was rejected, I was arrested and accused by the government of being the leader of a group of assassins. My wife and family, my students Duk Sung Son, Yung Taek Chong and several others were beaten, tortured, and lynched by the government. We were targeted for death because we had not agreed to support the government blindly, no matter what their goals. Eventually we were released. President Lee's secretary, Chang Jun Yu, obtained our release in 1950. Once free, our situation in Korea was still uncomfortable, so my wife and I fled to Japan as political refugees.

That was the year the Korean Conflict between North and South Korea broke out.

Yes, on June 25, 1950, the Korean War broke out with Kim Il Sung leading-the Communist forces against the government of President Syngman Rhee. As soon as the war started, there was chaos across the country. My family fled to Pusan City in the extreme south of Korea, near to Japan. My family home (worth over $6,000,000 today) and most of their belongings were lost. Left on their own, many of my students founded their own systems of instruction -- Ji Do Kwan, Jung Do Kwan, Moo Duk Kwan, and others. Many different kwans were established without any system of unification. This was upsetting to me.

During the war, Yung Jun Yoo, one of my head instructors, disappeared to reappear later in North Korea. He promoted Tae Kwon Do widely in the North. The Russian ambassador to South Korea informed me that North Korea had a tremendously successful Tae Kwon Do movement. After the war when Bung Jun Yoo found that I was still alive and had returned to South Korea, he sent his greetings along with photos of his students and recent events. He tried to entice me to come to North Korea and lend my name and reputation to northern Tae Kwon Do. I received a personal invitation to immigrate from North korean President Kim Il Sung, but I was not interested in living in the north due to my strong anti-Communist feeling.

Was it you who coined the name "Tae Kwon Do?"

Actually, that happened while I was still living in exile. In 1952, my students gave an exhibition for President Syngman Rhee. During the demonstration, the President.referred to their martial art as "Tae Kyon." Several of the demonstrators including Chung Do Kwan Central head instructor Eun Kyu Um (now KukkiwonVice President), Chong Myung Hyun, Jae Chun Ko, WanKi Paek, Hong Hee Choi (now ITF President), and others felt a new name was needed to reflect the Korean origins of the martial art but without the association that Tae Kyon had as a martial art practiced by gang members. The name "Tang Soo Do" means "Tang hand art" and carries with it an association with China's Tang Dynasty. The students consulted a Korean word book to come up with the name "Tae Kwon Do."

You make Tae Kwon Do sound almost like a religious movement.

The martial arts have a long history of association with religion. Tae Kwon Doists and the general public know only generalities about the origin and development of tae Kwon Do. The step-by-step evolution is not known becaus Tae Kwon Do has been influenced by many masters over the centuries as they taught their own special variations of the basic techniques to their students. There is no record of exactly who did what and when over the 2,000 year process. Literature on the specifics of development ofTae Kwonno is rare until modem times. Before the birth of the martial arts, the Chinese combat systems Asredaco, Obeche, Ajato, and Huardo were forerunners of the styles later developed by Buddhist monks and their followers. In 600 BC, Ki Sa Do was the art of fighting from horseback with spear and shield. I have read about these systems in an Oxford Press book on the history of sport.
When Tae Kwon Do was born it had religious as well as martial aspects. Buddhism especially is intertwined with Tae Kwon Do. There are many historical referencestothis relationship. Long ago, Buddhist monks traveled Asia to spread their religion. Wherever they stopped they encountered resistance from followers of other religions. Sometimes this resistance took the form of violence against the monks and their temples.. They had to develop self-defense techniques to repel these attacks. As guardians of their religion, they had to train in fighting techniques, learning and practicing together in their monastic communities.

The famous Indian monk Sa Chun Chuk or Tal Ma Tae-sa (greatest monk) is reputed to be the author of Tang Soo Bup Jo, the first known written record of martial art. Tan Soo Bup Jo contains much information about this period. About 1,800 years ago, Tal Ma Tae-Sa came to China which then consisted of many different kingdoms, one of which was the Tang kingdom (Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD). Tal Ma Tae-sa was the teacher of Yang Mu Jae who built the famous Shaolin Buddhist temple (Sorim Sa in Korean), in present-day Henan Province. Many of Yang Mu Jae's converts gave up on the Buddhist training because it was too strenuous for their weak minds and bodies. Realizing that sound a mind and body would make all possible, Yang Mu Jae organized Yeok Kun Kyung (strength training). He did this to assist his disciples in attaining the physical and mental strength to continue in the Buddhist way. Later, the monks of Sorim Temple developed their own martial art, Sorim Sa Kwon Bup. Sorim Temple is still famous today as a center of Kung Fu training. The temple contains ancient paintings depicting Yang Mu Jae's discovery and martial art training. Therefore, Tal Ma Tae-sa's great contributions were in both religion and martial art. In those days, individual fighter's skills were so highly developed as to be almost beyond belief. Each fighter honed his own special martial art skill. They protected their temples using fascinating martial arts.
They practiced constantly and distributed their teaching everywhere. According to the ancient written book, the So Ji Rok, Sorim Sa's monks developed self-defense skills to protect their temples from the time of the Tang Dynasty to the Mal, Sung, and Myung Dynasties. These skills included self-defense techniques and forms including Sanjin, Saensun, San Saero, Subarin Baei, Da Chang, Kung Fu, and Huang Pae. These names are all associated with Buddhism. In the Tang Dynasty, many different martial art systems were developed. Competitions were held to determine which fighter the Emperor would reward with the title "Moo Bok Won," or best martial artist in the land. Another title was "Nui De Won." These histories come to us from the Mu Bi Gi, a written history from the Ming Dynasty.

Grandmaster Lee seated front row center at the Seoul YMCA

Are you content with the current development of Tae Kwon Do?

I am concerned that basic training is often neglected. There should be more emphasis on basic skills: balance, focus, strength training, conditioning of striking surfaces, stance. This lack often impedes the growth of students as martial artists. Mastery of the basics makes it easy to learn more advanced techniques.

Perhaps this lack of focus on basics is the result of beginning Tae Kwon Do training with children. In the old days, students began learning Tae Kwon Do as teenagers or young adults who found it easier to focus on basics without mental fatigue.

I think the mental attitude required for Tae Kwon Do is slipping. There is a lack of preparation, seriousness, and commitment. I have visited many schools. Many seem to focus on providing an entertaining program for the students rather than serious martial arts training. Many do not have hand training, knife-hand training, three-step sparring or one-step sparring. There is often a focus on speed in the performance of forms. Sometimes students move so quickly that the form of the movement is sacrificed. Without breathing control and with sole focus on speed, balance is lost and the student only shows his lack of maturity.

Similarly, there is an overemphasis on kicking techniques at most schools. This is another sign of immaturity, It results in most students being inexpert in basic movement skills such as stances and blocking. Again, there needs to be much more emphasis on basics. Part of the problem is due to instruction that often lacks clarity. Students need a proper learning attitude, but the techniques must be demonstrated clearly. The students must practice repeatedly, and the instructor must demand adherence to proper technique.

People need to show their respect for the natural order of the universe through their manners, health and actions. Using Tae Kwon Do techniques, human beings can utilize all 380 vital points of their bodies to achieve balance with nature. This balance can be achieved and maintained only through constant practice which requires commitment and a serious approach. Each movement must be practiced systematically again and again. The rules and regulations of the techniques must be internalized by the student; then the technique becomes a true part of the student's being, to be used without hesitation and without regret. Creative study is a key. Eventually, every martial artist will become old and lose physical strength to a greater or lesser degree. With perfected technique, great physical strength is not absolutely required to perform.

I believe that fragmentation of Tae Kwon Do into many kwans is ultimately harmful. I would prefer unification of kwans and techniques. Improvement of technical quality requires strict practice. Without special training, there can never be improvement of the quality of martial arts. I therefore recommend strong education. I hope to see a strong educational organization dedicated to this sort of improvement of techniques. It is my earnest hope that a Tae Kwon Do college will be established one day. Such a college would promote deep training and technical development.
What about sport Tae Kwon Do?

Initially, I thought that inclusion of Tae Kwon Do as an Olympic event would be a problem for Tae Kwon Do as a whole, but I now believe that it will not be damaging if the current movement is accompanied by the proper martial arts spirit. If a win-at-all-costs attitude comes to pervade the sport, it would be disastrous. Likewise, perfection of basic techniques is supremely important, so I hope that they will be a major factor in judging. With over 130 countries involved in the Tae Kwon Do movement, impartiality in judging international competitions is key.  If the judging is fair, the Tae Kwon Do will enjoy continued success as an international sport. If not, then it cannot continue.

What do you consider to be your most important contribution to modern Tae Kwon Do?

I am the founder of modern Tae Kwon Do in Korea. I am happy that Tae Kwon Do has helped to reawaken national pride in many Koreans who had become alienated from their traditional culture. During the Japanese occupation many Koreans identified with the Japanese while others embraced Communist philosophy. We helped to keep Tae Kwon Do alive during the occupation by training in secret. I hope that I may continue to serve Tae Kwon Do by speaking at functions and seminars.