One martial art battles cold war corruption

Will the Olympics let tae kwon do escape its tainted past?

ALEX GILLIS | July 9, 2008 |

If they had been alive, or out of prison, or had briefly ignored the martial arts mayhem that they’d wrought, some of the founders of tae kwon do would have been proud of Karine Sergerie. Sergerie, Canada’s martial arts champion, was losing 3-0 in the finals of the 2007 World Tae- kwondo Championships (an almost insurmountable score), when she told herself that she shouldn’t give up, shouldn’t think about past losses. Weary and in pain, she lashed out with an electric-fast kick to her opponent’s midsection (the score now 3-1) and followed with another (3-2). “This is like being in a movie,” she thought. Her third kick tied the match, and she won in sudden-death overtime, becoming the first Canadian to win a world championship in the South Korean art of tae kwon do.

In the process, Sergerie embodied the founders’ tenets — perseverance, self-control, integrity, courtesy and indomitable spirit — tenets that some of the founders mangled as they stole millions of dollars, ran espionage missions and plotted with gangsters. Seventy million people in 180 countries practise various styles of tae kwon do, and many have seen its powerful kicks but not its sordid history.

Two years ago, South Korean courts convicted officials in the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), which runs the sport, with issuing fake referee licences to more than 30 people, and the officials were dismissed. This year, after the WTF’s secretary general handed an envelope of cash to an IOC member who had lost his luggage during a 2007 championship, an IOC ethics commission concluded that it was not “acceptable behaviour, inasmuch as such conduct runs the obvious risk of being interpreted as a corruption attempt and thus of tarnishing the image of the IOC member and the IOC itself.” The secretary general said he was simply trying to help.

The WTF isn’t, however, the only governing body involved in controversy. Its rival, the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF), has seen its share of bizarre conflicts and has never been invited to the Olympics, even though it ran tae kwon do long before the WTF and still runs its own world competitions. ITF leaders allied themselves with North Korea in the 1970s, were part of an assassination plot in the 1980s, and ran parts of the ITF like a cult in the 1990s.

The contrast between athletes such as Sergerie and some of the leaders of the martial art is striking. A couple of months ago, Sergerie, who lives in Montreal, won a gold medal in the 67-kg weight division at the test event for the Olympics. She is Canada’s hope for a martial arts gold in Beijing, as are Vancouver’s Ivett Gonda and Quebec City’s Sébastien Michaud — but that’s assuming they don’t face the cheating, bribery and violence fostered by some of the martial art’s founders. “I hope it will be clean and fair,” Sergerie told Maclean’s. “I hope so because it doesn’t look good for the sport.”

Tae kwon do’s main founder, Choi Hong-Hi, was a powerful general in South Korea in the 1950s when he made up the name “tae kwon do,” which evolved from karate and roughly means “the way of the foot and the fist.” He convinced Korea’s leaders that soldiers should train in the art. He and the other founders set up special units to train South Korean soldiers for the Vietnam War and prepare secret-service agents for missions to North Korea. He created the ITF in 1966 and within a few years tae kwon do was one of the hottest martial arts in the world. Movie star Bruce Lee and boxer Muhammad Ali were two of the many stars training in the South Korean art.

Choi moved to Toronto in 1972 partly because he said the South Korean regime had recruited two of his prime tae kwon do instructors for a mission to kidnap 203 alleged spies in seven countries in 1967, when the Kafkaesque mission landed in newspapers around the world. At the time, Koreans knew about Choi’s conflicts with South Korean president Park Chung-Hee, and most blamed the loud-mouthed Choi, who had a reputation for being difficult to work with. But Choi told reporters that he fled South Korea because the dictatorship had targeted him after he protested about the 1967 mission.

The move to Canada did little good for Choi, because South Korea assigned a high-ranking Korean CIA agent, Kim Un-yong, to replace him and become world leader of a martial art that would improve the regime’s image around the world. Kim was younger than Choi and had been below him in military rank, but he was a wealthy, brilliant diplomat who could speak six languages and had served as a KCIA agent and South Korean embassy official, according to U.S. congressional reports about the KCIA’s activities in the United States. What followed was a martial arts Cold War, with athletes and instructors caught in the crossfire. On one side was Choi and North Korea, which he contacted after he settled in Toronto, and on the other, Kim and South Korea, which created the World Taekwondo Federation in 1973 (the year after Choi moved to Canada) and made Kim its president. An enraged Choi accused them of stealing his martial art, dubbed himself the “founder” of tae kwon do, and vowed to stop Kim with the help of North Korea. Most Koreans later viewed Choi’s alliance with the North as a colossal betrayal of tae kwon do’s ideals, and the majority of his star instructors left him to join the WTF or start their own federations.

During a 1980 martial arts visit in Pyongyang, North Korea, where Choi’s black belts broke wooden boards and jumped over a motorcycle, Choi convinced North Korea’s leader to give millions of dollars to the ITF and enough men to launch a new, global wave of tae kwon do. In return, Choi’s martial art gave the Hermit Kingdom an aura of prestige, access to the rest of the world and the occasional martial arts assassin. Within a year of the 1980 demonstration, Choi was opening new gyms and national associations around the world, and Choi’s son, the No. 2 man in the ITF, was plotting with North Korean agents and Toronto mobsters to assassinate South Korea’s newest dictator, a plan that the RCMP stopped. “Bizarre death scheme,” said the headline in the Toronto Sun. Choi’s son did time in prison for that plot, and Choi became persona non grata until his death in 2002.

Meanwhile, the WTF faced its own highs and lows. Kim brought the Olympics to Seoul in 1988 and lobbied for years for tae kwon do to become an official Olympic sport in 2000. Canada’s Karine Sergerie was one of millions of youth who joined tae kwon do because of Olympic dreams.

But rumours of corruption in the late 1990s followed Kim Un-yong after bribery allegations sur­faced relating to the awarding of the Olympics to Salt Lake City, one of the largest corruption scandals in Olympic history. Kim stood at the centre of it, but he seemed untouchable, more god than godfather. However, at world championships and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, refereeing mistakes, bad judging and what looked like outright cheating angered many athletes. One of Kim’s retired lieutenants, WTF vice-president Lee Chong-woo, later told a journalist how cheating worked during the 2000 Olympics: “When we assigned referees prior to the competition, I was the one who decided most of all who was to be assigned or not assigned. I could not openly ask judges to take care of Korea, could I? So when I hit the judges’ backs, some were sensitive enough to understand what it meant, while the insensitive ones did not understand at all.” Lee said the process was called “branch trimming” and that it referred to eliminating strong competitors in early rounds so that Koreans could face relatively weaker opponents in the medal rounds.

At the time, Korean gangsters were trying to take over parts of Olympic tae kwon do, manipulating elections to the executive and raking in millions in kickbacks and bribes. A journalist once asked Lee Chong-woo about gang members in the sport. Lee replied that gangsters gave tae kwon do a bad name but they were needed to counter groups trying to wreck the martial art, an indirect reference to the Cold War between his WTF organization and the Communist-backed ITF.

The links to crime bosses don’t seem to have died. Earlier this year, a Korean tae kwon do master, Lee Seung Hwan, announced that he was a director of the Seoul-based Kukkiwon (the premier training facility and world headquarters of Olympic tae kwon do), even though a South Korean court had imprisoned him for working with 300 gangsters and martial artists during street fights before a tae kwon do presidential election in 2002.

Almost as bad were the bribery, extortion and corruption scandals that eventually destroyed Kim Un-yong. In 2005, a Korean court found him guilty of embezzling more than $3 million from sports organizations and of accepting more than $700,000 in bribes. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Kim said the whole thing was a political vendetta, but didn’t offer details. Internationally, Olympic tae kwon do faced the worst crisis in its history as, country by country, Kim’s network fell. The IOC considered kicking tae kwon do out of the Olympics, but it remained partly because the WTF rebuilt itself from the ground up — in Canada, the U.S., Australia and many other nations.

“We’ve moved into a business age,” said Wayne Mitchell, Canada’s WTF secretary general, referring to the WTF worldwide. “It’s far smarter to run those organizations like businesses rather than like criminal organizations or an extension of that sort of thing.” Grandmaster Kee Ha, Canada’s head coach of the 2004 Olympic team, said that the refereeing and judging should be more consistent for the 2008 games, thanks to judging seminars and other WTF initiatives. Karine Sergerie hopes the worst is over. She doesn’t want to discuss controversies in Olympic tae kwon do. “It’s a waste of energy,” she says. She has other things to focus on, like winning a gold medal.

Alex Gillis’s book, A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, will be published by ECW Press in August 2008.