Brief Biography of General Choi Hong Hi-Founder of Taekwon-Do
General Choi Hong Hi was born in November 1918 (or December according to western calendars) in northern part of Korea before Korea became two nations. His early life was peppered with incidents that demonstrated his determination and rebellious nature against the occupying forces of the Japanese nation, one such example was his expulsion from school at age 12 for leading a protest against the Japanese1. As a youth he was privileged to study Chinese characters, and calligraphy and was exposed to the Korean martial art of Taekyon through his calligraphy teacher. Ironically he moved to Japan to further his education where he learnt Karate and achieved at least a second Dan black belt, although there is some confusion about exactly what rank he finally achieved2 but there is independent verification that he taught Karate at a YMCA in Japan.
Towards the end of the second world war he was forcefully conscripted into the Japanese army however he was then involved in a plot to overthrow the Japanese colonial government. Eventually the plotters planned to join what some called the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army and the efforts of Korean guerrilla warrior Kim Il-Sung, who rose to be a commander of their underground resistance and independence movement. He was high on the Japanese most wanted list. The success of this movement and Korean resistance army was aided by the availability to move back and forth across the borders of China and the Soviet Union that were located in this northeast region of Korea. Traitors who were Korean collaborators reported the plans and General Choi and others were jailed2. He was fortunately released shortly before the end of the war and subsequently was instrumental in setting up the South Korean government advocating for democratic national control.
He enrolled in a military language school in 1945 which subsequently became the Korean Military academy and was commissioned to 2nd Lieutenant in 19463. As a young junior officer he began teaching his soldiers Tang Soo Do (karate) and recruited other martial artists to instruct the growing number of soldiers under his command as he rose through the ranks in the fledgling army. He was also one of the elite few Korean army officers to undergo training in military strategy and intelligence in the United States. in 1951, now a brigadier general, he organized the Ground General School in Pusan as assistant Commandant and Chief of the Academic Department. Choi was appointed as Chief of Staff of the First Corps in 1952 and was responsible for the briefing General MacArthur during the latter’s visit to Kang Nung. At the time of the armistice, Choi was in command of the 5 th Infantry Division. The year 1953 was an eventful one for the General, in both his military career and in the progress of the new martial art. He became the author of the first authoritative book on military intelligence in Korea . He organized and activated the crack 29th infantry Division at Cheju Island, which eventually became the spearhead of Taekwon-do in the military and established the Oh Do Kwan ( Gym of my Way) where he succeeded not only in training the cadre instructors for the entire military but also developing the Taek Kyon and Karate techniques into a modern system of Taekwon-do, with the help of Mr Nam Tae HI, his right hand man in 1954.5
Technically, 1955 signalled the beginning of Taekwon-Do as a formally recognized art in Korea. On the 11th of April 1955, a special board was summoned by General Choi to decide on the unified name of Taekwon-Do. After much debate, the five major Kwans, Chung Do Kwan, Oh Do Kwan, Song Moo Kwan, Chang Moo Kwan, Ji Do Kwan, and Moo Duk Kwan accepted the name because it closely resembled the name of the ancient Korean martial art, Tae Kyon. This single unified name of Taekwon-Do replaced the different and confusing terms, such as Dang Soo, Gong Soo, Taek Kyon, and Kwon Bup.6
In 1961, the Korean Taekwon-do Association was formed with General Choi as its President. During the next few years, he led Taekwon-do demonstration teams throughout the world. In 1965, the South Korean government gave approval to General Choi’s martial art and declared it as Korea’s National martial art1. Shortly after the formation of the KTA he authored the first book ever on Taekwon-Do, written in both Korean HanGul and Chinese HanJa. This book documented the first five Korean Patterns he created along with the assistance of the soldiers under his command. (Hwa-Rang, Chung-Mu, Ul-Ji, U-Nam and Sam-Il). This historic book is on display in the museum history section of the Taekwondowon in MuJu Korea. General Choi would go on to author several other books, including the 1972 textbook that became known as the “bible of Taekwon-Do”, the unprecedented 15 Volume Encyclopaedia of Taekwon-Do in 1983, several condensed versions of that work, his 3 Volume Set of Memoirs, as well as a Guidebook on Moral Culture.
In 1962 due to political issues in Korea he was required to take a post as the ambassador to Malaysia where he continued to promote and promulgate Taekwon-Do and consequently even today Taekwon-Do is a very popular Martial Art in that country. In 1965 he returned to Korea and in 1966 he established the International Taekwon-Do Federation and took several demonstration teams around the World to promote the Art. Nonetheless in 1972 he chose to seek asylum while on a tour to Canada and subsequently moved the headquarters of the ITF first to Toronto, Canada and then to Vienna in Austria. The South Korea government under the leadership of Park Chung-Hee with whom Choi Hong Hi had significant problems, responded by forming a new organisation, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), based in Seoul7 and led by the infamous Un Yong Kim who was an agent of the KCIA. General Choi’s efforts took Taekwon-Do to places like Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China during the “Cold War” era. This groundbreaking work has led to some of these Nations being powerhouses in Taekwon-Do today4.
Choi’s final years were marked by his efforts to return to North Korea. He introduced taekwondo there in 1980, and won further favour with the government by changing the name of one solo practice form from kodang (after a North Korean democratic Christian moderate, presumed slain by the Red Army in 1946) to juche (after the isolationist policy of “self-reliance” advocated by North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung). Though Choi’s intention had been reconciliatory, unfortunately South Korea saw it as treasonous7.
Shortly before his death in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Choi was able to announce through the ITF website, “I am the man who has the most followers in the world”: be that as it may, the impact of taekwondo, with 50m practitioners after 50 years of existence, is undeniable7. After a life dedicated to the development of Taekwon-Do, a modern martial art based on traditional values, philosophy, and training, General Choi, Founder of Taekwon-Do and President of the International Taekwon-Do Federation, died on June 15th, 2002, in the country of his birth2.