There should he no doubt that General Choi Hong-Hi is the principle founder of the original Taekwon-Do. Without him there simply would be no Taekwon-Do. Indeed no other person can even be considered as a founder. While this pivotal important figure in Taekwon-Do’s history and development gave the world many great gifts through his wonderful contributions, perhaps one of his best creations was the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF). He founded the ITF in Seoul on March 22, 1966. This marked the first time in history Korea was ever the home to the headquarters of any international organization. In essence it began or symbolized the coming out party for Korea!
The ITF continued the global dissemination of Taekwon-Do that General Choi began in the Republic of (south) Korea’s (ROK) Army in 1959. The ITF would grow to have representation in well over 100 countries around the world. Of course as General Choi increased his outspoken criticism of the dictatorship(s) in south Korea, his power and influenced waned. Eventually the civilian Taekwondo movement was increasingly marginalizing him. They put their emphasis on the sport aspect that was back then now being led by a powerful and talented politician named Dr. Kim Un-Yong. So in 1972, at the height of the brutality of the Park dictatorial regime, General Choi fled for his safety to live a life in exile. He took up residence in Toronto, Canada and relocated the ITF Headquarters there.
Over the years General Choi gave thought to who would succeed him as president of the ITF. Some earlier possibilities were Grandmaster Ro Byung-Jik, who served as a Vice President of the ITF. Other subsequent possibilities he thought of were Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, a founding member of the ITF and Grandmaster Park Jong-Soo, an original Taekwon-Do pioneer and beloved student of General Choi. Later on he also considered Grandmaster Kang Suh-Chong, who also served as a Vice President of the ITF up until the early 1980s. Of course the options shrank as he was depicted as being against Korea and many abandoned the ITF.
As his opposition voice increased, it naturally led to many of his loyal members leaving him. However, General Choi was not against Korea or its people. He was indeed a great Korean patriot that worked his whole life to reunite his beloved homeland. He did not consider himself north Korean, even though he was born in 1918 in the northern part during the occupation period while Korea an occupied colony of Imperial Japan. As a young student he was expelled from school because of his sentiments towards Japan. After being forcefully conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army, the young Choi engaged in a plot to fight against the Colonial apparatus and join the Korean Resistance. However the plot was uncovered and he was imprisoned, only to be saved later when the Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally to the U.S. Military and the Allied Command in the Pacific.
After World War II ended he moved south to join the growing democratic movement. While there General Choi became a leading figure that played a role in establishing a democratic south Korea. He did this by becoming a graduate of their first military academy class and becoming a founding member of the ROK Army as the 44th candidate of the graduating class of 110. However he did not consider himself a south Korean either. General Choi simply considered himself Korean. Towards the latter years or twilight of his life, the General also considered his only son, Master Choi Jung-Hwa, as his successor.
In 2002 the ITF split over the succession plans for the presidency. When General Choi passed away a few months later, another split occurred with the ITF now being fragmented into three parts. Sadly those divisions still exist today. Since many had viewed the ITF as a one man centered organization, few were surprised at the seemingly constant splintering of the Federation. In the meantime a Black Belt Instructor by the name of the Honorable Russell MacLellan, Q.C. was the sitting Senior Vice President of the ITF. He also served as a Premier and Member of Canada’s Parliament. In his capacity with the ITF he assumed the position of acting president, in essence becoming the second president of the ITF.
Master Choi Jung-Hwa led a faction that broke away right before General Choi passed away. Professor Chang Ung, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Member from north Korea was General Choi’s final decision as to who should succeed him. However another faction insisted the Constitutional procedures in place for presidential succession should be followed. Master Trân Triêu Quân led that group. The Congress at the regularly scheduled World Championships eventually elected him president during June of 2003 in Poland. In Greece another World Championship was held, along with a different Congress during the same month. This Congress confirmed Professor Chang Ung as president.
Under the presidency of Professor Chang, the ITF held a series of meetings with the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). These sessions were to negotiate the exchange of demonstration teams between the two Koreas and implement a merger between the two Tae Kwon Do bodies. This goal was the result of a list of items the two Koreas established to help them work together and build trust as a prerequisite to eventual reunification further down the line. This list was agreed upon during the historic first ever summit between the two leaders of the Koreas. This summit took place on June 15, 2000 and resulted in unprecedented cooperation. This in turn led to the ROK President Kim Dae-Jung winning the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The first part was implemented successfully with Professor Chang leading the Chosun ITF Taekwon-Do Team to the south in both 2002 and 2007. The ROK government sent a Taekwondo Team to the north in 2002. Sadly General Choi had already passed away. Therefore he did not live to see a long held dream of his fulfilled. So in 2002, ITF Taekwon-Do finally returned to its birthplace in the ROK. These series of events garnered a lot of media attention.
Professor Chang met with Dr. Kim Un-Yong, the founding president of the WTF. After Dr. Kim was forced to resign because of scandals that resulted in his arrest and subsequent prison sentence, Prof. Chang continued to work with Dr. Kim’s successor, Dr. Choue Chong-Won. Neither of these men were Taekwondoin. They were also not around during the turbulent political times when the divisions and battles for supremacy in Korea over the martial arts continued to be fought by the ITF and WTF. This did not affect either of their pasts and they both enjoyed support from the respective home governments. For Koreans the issue is rarely Tae Kwon Do, but the divided homeland and the problems caused by this reality.
In 2006 the two presidents signed an agreement to set up a Coordination Committee that would handle the integration of both the technical and administrative aspects of Tae Kwon Do. Several sessions were held prior to and after they signed the agreement. The focus was on technical integration first. However this appeared to be too difficult to achieve. Changing political leadership in both Koreas also created a climate that was not as receptive to cooperation between the two Koreas as had been the case earlier.
In the meantime Professor Chang continued to work diligently behind the scenes to mend fences and build bridges. During this time several important factors would occur to change both the dynamics and direction the cooperation with between the ITF and WTF would take, especially as to how it relates to finding a pathway for the ITF into the Olympics.
The whole world was shocked when the Executive Board of the IOC voted to remove Wrestling from the Olympic Program. Eventually the IOC Membership worked out a compromise to insure it remained yet again, one more time. However the message was clear: If the oldest Olympic sport could be ousted, no sport was safe! This was important for Taekwondo, as it had already been rumored to be the sport, along with Modern Pentathlon that faced the highest probability to be taken out. The immediate past president of the IOC, Dr. Jacques Rogge in a live press conference even stated the prevailing thought was it would be either Taekwondo or Modern Pentathlon that would be replaced with a new sport.
It would not have surprised many if Modern Pentathlon remained; as their International Federation (IF) has as a First Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is the son of the former long serving President of the IOC. His father was the man that many credit with saving the Olympic Movement. The younger Mr. Samaranch is also an Executive Member of the IOC. Taekwondo no longer has a powerful IOC Executive Board Member to help it retain its shaky status since Dr. Kim Un-Yong stepped down in disgrace when he was arrested and subsequently sent to prison for corruption. So readers can draw their own conclusions.
September of 2013 saw a new president take the helm at the IOC. Dr. Thomas Bach’s candidacy was strongly supported by Professor Chang. The two served together in the IOC since 1996. Professor Chang now had the most powerful ally to help him with his efforts with the WTF and his goal of helping to realize General Choi’s dream of bringing the ITF into the Olympics. Earlier on the ITF and WTF fought bitterly over many issues. At the top of that list was entry into the Olympics. The WTF won that race by having their style of Taekwondo performed as a demonstration sport in 1988, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics. Later Dr. Kim brokered a deal to have Taekwondo perform again, this time in 1992 as an exhibition sport. This was unprecedented and Dr. Kim was so successful in his lobbying efforts, the status was upgraded to demonstration, which never happened before.
Once the WTF gained official status in 1994, it won the race. One of the benefits of being an accepted IF is the veto power that is virtually assured, as there is only one IF allowed per sport. This reality naturally will shape any approaches or attempts for ITF Taekwon-Do to gain any foothold with the Olympic Movement. This of course made the task far more difficult than it already had been.
In May of 2014 reports surfaced that IOC Member Mr. Lee Kun-Hee of Samsung suffered a heart attack. While much secrecy covers his current health status, it is obvious that he has not fulfilled any responsibilities with the IOC as a Member from the ROK. This has resulted in a couple of people vying for candidacy to eventually replace Mr. Lee. Among possible candidates reported widespread in the media is Dr. Choue of the WTF. Professor Chang has been supportive of Dr. Choue, as the two have forged a good relationship over the many years of working together. It also should be obvious that the WTF needs the skillful lobbying efforts of Professor Chang in order to help insure Taekwondo remains in the Olympic Program, as many new sports are working hard to get in. The present reality is that all the other sports must work to retain official status. There are no permanent sports in the Olympics.
Of course the ever-present Korean political situation also continues to hover over and all around Tae Kwon Do. This is to be expected as both halves of Korea are proud of Tae Kwon Do and they continue to use it as a political and cultural propaganda tool. The Korean Martial Art and Olympic Sport was after all a listed issue that both Koreas would work on cooperating with, as a result of the historic summit back in June of 2000. Therefore it should be no real surprise to any long time member of the ITF or any informed person who follows these happenings, as General Choi often used his Taekwon-Do and the ITF as a means to reunite his beloved homeland of Korea. Understanding this premise can help readers to realize why General Choi wished to have Professor Chang succeed his presidency.
Many began to see the wisdom of that choice when Professor Chang and Dr. Choue signed an historic Protocol of Accord at the Youth Olympic Games in China on August 21, 2014. This agreement in essence stipulated that the roots of Tae Kwon Do are unique and their organizations are to some extent inseparable. For the first time ever the two federations agreed to not only respect and recognize each other as international entities, but they further pledged to cooperate for the future betterment of Tae Kwon Do, including the Olympic Movement, allowing each to compete in the other side’s events, even the Olympics, and fielding demonstration teams together for the worldwide propagation of the Art.
This was made possible not only through Professor Chang’s work behind the scenes, but also from the personal involvement of Dr. Bach, the new IOC President that Dr. Chang worked hard to get into office. Dr. Bach has assigned this the political attention it deserves, because of the connections to the two Koreas. The agreement was signed in his presence at a prestigious IOC event.
The reality is that the ITF is now inside the Olympic House. The important details that now must be worked out are how exactly will ITF competitors access the Olympics and what will that final product look like. The WTF seems to prefer the ITF athletes qualify and compete under the present system of rules, which have morphed a bit closer to the ITF set. The ITF on the other hand is apparently working directly with the IOC to have ITF Taekwon-Do as a separate and second event in the Olympics.
In order for this to happen the total player cap has to be raised or the slots must come from other events that will need to be removed. The next obstacle is the number of medals for whatever divisions are allocated must be agreed upon. Having ITF Taekwon-Do as a separate event is no different from other sports like Wrestling that has Greco-Roman and Free Style events under their banner. We see Gymnastics or Track and Field with more than thirty or forty events under their banner. The ITF sparring rules also have to be refined to fit better into the Olympic theme.
Under Dr. Chang Ung’s leadership, he has shaped the ITF into the organizational mold that the IOC looks for with its IFs. Dr. Chang established a Woman’s Committee and has placed via nominations, appointments or elections women in several key positions, such as the Executive Board or Continental leadership roles. The Women’s Committee has also held their own high profile annual meetings in places like Thailand and India, apart from their meetings held in conjunction with the larger ITF events. He also pushed the ITF to adopt anti-doping procedures. At the most recent ITF World Championship held in Bulgaria the Athletes’ Committee that was previously established held their elections for the representatives. That Committee is now fully staffed. These innovations filled the void of the last requirements that the IOC looks at.
Regardless of how the ITF participates in the Olympics, it will be under the WTF umbrella. So the approach to merge the two groups has been abandoned. The new model is the one of mutual recognition and respect. This tactic will lead to the cooperation and growth needed to insure the continued Olympic status of sport Taekwondo. Dr. Chang served his two terms as ITF president. In August he was comfortable in stepping down from the responsibilities of heading the ITF and handling the day-to-day operations.
Dr. Chang became the Honorary Life President of the ITF. In this capacity he will focus on two tasks. The first is to continue his work with the WTF and the other is to use his capacity as an IOC Member to insure ITF Taekwon-Do attains the place in the Olympics that many think the “Original Taekwon-Do” deserves.
Master Ri Yong-Son succeeded Professor Chang. The recent Congress in Plovdiv, Bulgaria unanimously confirmed his presidency. Master Ri had worked under General Choi holding several administrative positions at the ITF headquarters. He was a long time resident of Vienna Austria, the official seat of the ITF Secretariat since 1985. After the passing of General Choi Mr. Ri assumed much of the daily operations of running the ITF.
After Master Ri’s tenure as Executive Director General of the ITF ended, he returned back to Pyongyang. While there he continued to serve the ITF in many capacities. He also became the Vice President of the Korean Taekwon-Do Committee. Later Master Ri began serving as the Vice President of the National Olympic Committee of the Democratic People’s Republic of (north) Korea (DPRK).
It is hoped that with the administrative experience that Master Ri has, it can be enhanced by Professor Chang Ung’s mentoring of him, helping to insure a smooth transition. At the same time, Dr. Chang can focus his attention on the issues that he seems uniquely qualified for and position to handle. In reflection perhaps Professor Chang’s greatest contribution was ending the decades old battles and fighting for supremacy in the Korean Martial Arts community. Since the liberation of Korea in 1945 there existed a lack of cohesion in this community. So the tensions and competition predate the founding of Taekwon-Do, as well as both the ITF and the WTF.
These internal struggles and cross organizational rivalries were naturally compounded by the real world politics of the Koreas, made worse by its tragic division by outside foreign powers that is still unresolved. The race for Olympic recognition took place during the “Cold War” era and really hurt the Tae Kwon Do community. Today, thanks to the tenacity of the behind the scenes maneuvering by Dr. Chang, at least the bitterness between the ITF and WTF has been solved. This took tremendous work to put the past back where it belong, in the days long gone! Then the focus was to repair relationships and build new bridges to a better future. This was no easy task. It is rather remarkable that peace was achieved when one considers that this transpired in only a dozen years. Meanwhile the fighting had lasted approximately 60 long years! Now this is done and the ITF is inside of the Olympic house. This is part of the legacy of Professor Chang Ung, PhD. Every student of Tae Kwon Do should support this important work. I am sure General Choi is pleased with this progress.
Grandmaster Trân Triêu Quân was the ITF President who led a faction that focused on following the ITF Constitution after the passing of General Choi. The Constitution clearly outlined the procedures for presidential succession in the case of vacancy in the office. He held the office from the time of his democratic election at the ITF congress in Poland, 2003 until his tragic death in Haiti in January 2010. Prior to serving as ITF President Grandmaster Tran held such important posts in the ITF such as president of the Canadian National Governing Body as well as the Pan American Continental Body for the ITF. Additionally he served as the Chairman of the ITF Tournament Committee.
In both Montreal in 1990 and Quebec City in 2007 Grandmaster Tran hosted ITF World Championships. The City of Montreal gave him an award for “Best Event of the Year” for his efforts in organizing the 7th World Championships in August of 1990. Grandmaster Tran was a Canadian citizen who was born in Vietnam, where he started studying the martial art of Taekwon-Do when he was twelve years old. Five years later, he started a Taekwon-Do school to teach this martial art within the education system of the city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
He moved to Canada in 1970 to study engineering at Laval University in Quebec City. There he also set up Taekwon-Do schools, the first such schools in Eastern Canada. After receiving his engineering degree, he chose to make his permanent home in Canada. Grandmaster Trân started a consulting firm, Norbati Consultants Trân & Associates, which specializes in building standards and project management for the construction sector. Norbati has worked on projects in Canada and abroad and has developed an innovative concept for the modernization and optimization of the building construction sector in developing countries. Ironically it was this work that took him to Haiti where he died tragically during their devastating earthquake.
Among Grandmaster Trân’s contributions was his helping to navigate members during a turbulent time, while advocating the following of democratic principles. He took seriously General Choi request for the next generation to help emphasize the “DO” and he implemented a program to accomplish that very goal. In addition, Grandmaster Trân’s experience and education outside of Taekwon-Do resulted in him earning an academic MBA. This helped him to put the ITF organization on course to run as an efficient business model.
The Senior Vice President Grandmaster Pablo Trajtenberg succeeded Grandmaster Trân as president. After assuming the role as Acting President he was elected in his own right when he ran unopposed in 2011. Grandmaster Trajtenberg is now serving his second presidential term. He started his Taekwon-Do training back in 1968. In 1994 the ITF bestowed upon him one of the most important ITF awards that General Choi conferred. Only 9 of the General’s Western disciples received the coveted “Prize for Loyalty.” Grandmaster Trajtenberg regards this proudly as one of his top achievements. Everyone student should support the emphasis of a Tae Kwon Do federation being run as a democratic organization and an efficient business model.
Lastly Grandmaster Choi Jung-Hwa, then an 8th Dan Master and General Choi’s only son technically became the second President. The last unified Congress in 2001 held in Italy reelected General Choi. But some in the Congress saw fit to start a presidential succession. They hoped having General Choi served only 2 years of the usual 6-year presidential term would help the transition along. Master Choi, the then sitting Secretary General of the ITF would then serve the remaining 4 years of the term.
This action caused an internal split in the ITF. A couple of months later a meeting was called for that referred to as an Extraordinary Congress. The meeting was held in Vienna and was the scene of chaotic infighting. The meeting excluded some ITF members and resulted in Master Choi being removed as Secretary General. As a result he formed his own organization and a significant part of the membership followed him.
Grandmaster Choi has made tremendous inroads to having ITF Taekwon-Do return to the place of its birth, south Korea. Because of the serious political problems caused by General Choi’s personal opposition to the terrible military dictatorships, ITF Taekwon-Do was also forced out of Korea when General Choi fled for his safety to Canada back in 1972. In 2004 and 2010 Grandmaster Choi accomplished what no other person ever did, even his Father, when he had an ITF World Championships held in the Republic of (south) Korea! General Choi envisioned this many decades earlier and had even planned one for 1969. However the political situation simply did not support such a venture.
Additionally, Grandmaster Choi was able to have his adopted Country of Canada honor General Choi by naming their gymnasium at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul “Choi Hong-Hi Hall.” This is one of the few places in the south where General Choi is honored. His latest work involves outreach to the Kukkiwon. It may be true that no other person has a greater interest in seeing the history of Taekwon-Do corrected. In this way, his Family name can be restored to its rightful place and General Choi’s long overdue position of honor can be established in south Korea where he has been largely ignored and even blacklisted. Perhaps Grandmaster Choi’s legacy will be this work that he is rather uniquely positioned and qualified for. That work of course is reestablishing ITF Taekwon-Do back to its birthplace. Every student of Tae Kwon Do should support this important work.
It is my fervent wish and deeply held desire that all students of Tae Kwon Do work more closely together in a spirit of cooperation. This is the way of the Martial Arts; at least as I see it or how I was taught. I dream often of what the ITF world would be like if all 3 groups would see fit to at least join efforts where they have common goals. Imagine if the talents and energy of all were combined and worked under an efficient business smart model that maintained the available government support.
The Official Tae Kwon Do Hall of Fame has now inducted the first five (5) Presidents of Tae Kwon Do:
2009 – General Choi Hong-Hi
2011 – Dr. Kim Un-Yong
2015 – Grandmaster Choi Jung-Hwa
2015 – Dr. Chang Ung
2015 – Dr. Choue Chung-Won
2015 – Grandmaster Trân Triêu Quân