|World Taekwondo Executive Deputy Secretary General Kim Eil-chul, center, and North Korea's National Athletics Guidance Committee Chairman Choe Hwi, left, put their palms together as International Taekwondo Federation President Ri Yong-son looks on during a dinner at Okryugwan in Pyongyang on Nov. 2. Courtesy of World Taekwondo|
|Top World Taekwondo officials and their International Taekwondo Federation counterparts take time for a photo before starting their meeting at Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang on Nov. 2. Courtesy of World Taekwondo|
By Jung Min-ho
The modern history of taekwondo resembles that of the country it was born in.
There used to be only one taekwondo. But just like Korea, the martial art was separated into two forms and each has developed in its own way for decades.
At a time when South and North Korea are making new efforts for peace, World Taekwondo (WT) Executive Deputy Secretary General Kim Eil-chul said taekwondo can be "an inspiration and a catalyst" for their unification.
"Unification of taekwondo will have significant implications for everyone in Korea who wants their country unified eventually," Kim said in a recent interview at The Korea Times office. "It is important to note that what we are trying to achieve is not unifying two different kinds of taekwondo; rather, we are trying to recover its original oneness."
Taking a first step toward accomplishing the goal, WT, under the leadership of South Korean Choue Chung-won, 71, and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), led by North Korean Ri Yong-son, agreed last month to create a joint organization by the end of this year to narrow their differences in governing the sport. This came decades after the two global taekwondo bodies had refused to recognize each other.
At their meeting scheduled in China's Wuxi from Dec. 14 to 15, the two sides will discuss details of the accord, including the name and short-term objectives of the joint organization.
Taekwondo fans around the world will see "real change" when the joint WT and ITF demonstration team performs after months of training ― a significant step forward from their previous joint performances by separate teams.
"It will be very meaningful to see them perform as a single team in Switzerland's Lausanne next year in celebration of the 25th anniversary of taekwondo as an Olympic medal program," Kim said. "The International Olympic Committee is welcoming the idea and the three parties are now in talks over the schedule, which is expected to be in either April or June.
"The joint demonstration team will get better and better as South and North athletes spend more time together. Our hope and expectations are that they will be able to showcase their perfect teamwork and unity to the world at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics."
North Korean-style taekwondo maintains the martial art's traditional colors and emphasizes power and practical fighting skills. The South Korean style is sharper and more entertaining. Kim said the joint team will take the strengths of both styles and improve them into a new one.
"Integrating the game rules and certification systems of WT and ITF will take some time," he said. "But in some areas, such as para taekwondo and freestyle poomsae, the two organizations can narrow differences relatively easily."
Man behind the big deal
Choue came up with the idea of unifying taekwondo. But it was Kim who put it into action as a project leader.
While WT and the ITF remained separated without meaningful exchanges for more than 40 years, the two maintained that they were the only international taekwondo governing body. Thus, it was important to improve their relations first.
"It got off to a good start when the demonstration teams of WT and ITF performed together for the first time at the 2015 WT World Championships in Russia's Chelyabinsk, and we took another step forward at the 2017 WT Taekwondo Championships in Muju, where President Moon Jae-in came to congratulate WT and ITF officials for their efforts," Kim said.
|Kim introduces ITF Senior Vice President Hwang Ho-yong to President Moon Jae-in during the 2017 WT Taekwondo Championships in Muju, North Jeolla Province. Courtesy of World Taekwondo|
But the project faced hurdles later that year as inter-Korean relations soured with North Korea's nuclear weapons development. As a result, WT and ITF canceled their joint events in Pyongyang and the Vatican. "It was a bitter disappointment," Kim said.
But their relations and the project took a dramatic turn after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games began in South Korea in February. Top North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong, attended the event and South Koreans welcomed them. In two months, a historic WT-ITF Pyongyang joint performance ensued.
"The whole process may appear to have gone smoothly, but as a person who had to manage every detail of it, it was nerve-racking," Kim said. "For example, President Moon informed us of his plan to visit only a few days before, North Korean officials were unpredictable and uncooperative at times and South Korean officials were not as fast as I hoped. I was unsure whether we would be able to go to the North Korean capital for our second joint performance until the very last day."
"But I never lost my faith. I trusted that both WT and ITF officials would make it through together. I trusted the project would succeed. Above all, I trusted all the efforts would be worthwhile in the end regardless of how it turns out."
|Kim's mother, 86, has been credited with giving the WT-ITF link a helping hand. Her son said her handmade Jeotgal, a traditional Korean salted seafood, which he gave to North Korean IOC member Chang Ung as a gift, "may have played a part" in improving WT-ITF relations. Courtesy of Kim|
Kim said one of the most rewarding things for him was to see natural smiles on the faces of some North Korean officials, whom he once thought would never "unguard" themselves in any way.
"In Pyongyang last month, I really had a great time with them," he said. "It was much more natural and pleasant to meet them than before. On our friendship and trust, we will continue to work hard and, in one way or another, unify taekwondo."