History: Korean & Tae Kwon Do History

The three kingdoms


The original name for Korea was "Choson" meaning "land of morning calm". Nowadays S.Korea is called "Tae Han" and N.Korea is called "Choson ". The name Korea itself comes from the Koryo Dynasty (AD 918-1392) meaning "high and beautiful".

Original peoples

The original peoples are Tungusic ( from Manchuria / Siberia), and are Mongoloid like the Chinese & Japanese. There is a heavy Chinese influence in terms of vocabulary & language. There were close links with early Chinese & Japanese culture, but there were also initial confrontations between the Chinese & North Korean peoples.


The son of Heaven, Hwanung, descended to Earth and married a bear - turned - girl who bore a son, TanGun ( Dan Gun), the founder of Choson. Thus Dan Gun was the grandson of Heaven.

The Three Kingdoms (approx 40 BC - 6th century AD)

Three ancient states - Koguryo, Paekche and Silla began existence around 40 BC. They were all at war with each other, and had centralised military and training systems. Each state had powerful kings, nobles and tribal chiefs. The ordinary people were taxed and had to provide labour. Buddhism, practised as a nationalistic religion, was introduced during this period. The culture was highly advanced. Defensive martial arts called Subak or Takkyeon existed, and developed as a way of training body and mind. In the kingdom of Koguryo, these arts were called Sunbae. Silla had a special military & educational organization called Hwarang, which was the means to survive territorial conflicts with Koguryo and Paekje.


Hwarang was also a social organization, developed together with martial arts. Members were selected by the King through a contest; after the selection, they indulged themselves in learning, and they also enjoyed various games such as Subak, fencing, horse-riding, Dukgyon, Kkaekumjil and Ssirum(Korean wrestling). They also learned poetry and music and lived together as a group. During peace time, they worked on emergency aids and construction of fortresses and roads. But during times of war, they were ready to sacrifice their lives on the battle field. With support from China, Silla conquered Paekche in 660 and Koguryo in 668. The Chinese were driven out in 676.

Unified Kingdoms

An area in the North was left where a rebel state, Parhae existed for a short while, until it collapsed. During this period there was absolute monarchy, and a branch of Buddhism was practised by the aristocracy. The general public practised another branch which promised bliss in the next life! Confucianism was practised among low-level aristocrats, for political advancement. When Korea was united by Silla, China & Korea had a friendly military alliance because they had common enemies - Mongols / Manchurians / nomadic peoples. At the time, Chinese culture was more advanced than the Koreans. Eventually, central power began to wane due to coups, rebellions etc. Provincial fortresses were built to repel Japanese pirates.
Some aristocrats became really powerful, and had their own private armies. Castle lords were also powerful. Farmers were taxed both by the central government and castle lords - as a result many became drifters, rebels and robbers.

Koryo and Yi Dynasties

Koryo Dynasty ( 918 - 1392)

Eventually the united kingdoms disintegrated again, until Koryo eventually re-unified them. Martial arts had developing systematically since the period of the three-kingdoms, and finally reached an almost perfect practical stage. Not only were they used as actual martial arts ( compulsory for warriors - the techniques and power reached the level of weapons, high enough to kill ) - they also formed the foundation of games or sports. They also became an important factor in deciding social class and position - eg official rank and promotion of soldiers.
During this period, much land was taken away by the aristocracy. Buddhism and Confucianism existed together.

In 1231 the Mongols invaded, and met such fierce resistance that they were unable to conquer the country. However, there was even worse exploitation of farmers by the government - civilians eventually overthrew it and signed a peace treaty with the Mongols. Many farmers became servants, so that they didn't have to pay tax or be forced to serve in the military.

Yi Dynasty (1392-1910)

The Koryo dynasty ended in 1392, to be replaced by the Yi dynasty, which lasted all the way till 1910, when the Japanese annexed Korea. During this period, Buddhism fell out of favour - it was very corrupt, and Confucianism & Neo-Confucianism became the official religions. During the reign of Sejong the Great, there was vast cultural progress - books were printed on medicine,astronomy etc. There were many reforming scholars - eg Yi Hwang ( T'oe Gye) and Yi Yi (Yul Gok) who both had distinct theories of the Universe. One aspect of Buddhism falling from grace and Confucianism & Neo-Confucianism taking its place was that the martial arts began to decline. People who practised them were considered inferior, it was considered better to practise poetry and other refined activities.

First Japanese invasion

In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Japanese ruler, sent an army to Korea with the intention of invading China. Korea's land forces suffered many defeats, but naval forces under the command of Admiral Yi Sun Sin secured full control of the sea. He won the greatest naval victory in Korean history over the Japanese off the southern coast. Almost all types of people resisted the Japanese, including Ming Chinese. After a year, the Japanese withdrew. There was another invasion later, but Toyotomi Hideyoshi died, and the Japanese withdrew again. Much of Korea had been devastated; some scholars and artisans were taken to Japan to teach their skills to the less - advanced Japanese.

During the 1600's there were invasions of Korea by Manchus, who also overthrew the Ming in China.
In 1860, a new religion called TongHak was established by Ch'oeChu . There were many conflicts with the outside world, because Korea was a closed society - there was a national isolation policy. The French and US navies both tried to open up Korea and both were beaten back. The Japanese sent a fleet, and pressurised the Koreans to sign a treaty of trade & friendship, and open up their ports. There was also heavy influence from the Chinese, who stationed soldiers in Korea. The Chinese also made the Koreans sign a treaty favourable to them.
The Li-Ho convention was drawn up to lay down the Sino-Japanese balance of power in Korea.

Tonghak revolt (1894), start of Japanese rule, Korean War

Ordinary farmers & civilians had to cope with severe taxes and poor living conditions. There were large - scale revolts, and Government troops were defeated. The Government called in Chinese troops to help - at which point Japanese troops moved in, uninvited. In 1894 war broke out between Japan and China, which Japan won. The treaty of Shimonoseki recognised Japanese hegemony over Korea.

Japanese annexation

There were many political problems between the Japanese, Koreans, Russians and Chinese. During the Russo-Japanese war(1904-5), Korea was made a Japanese protectorate. In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea, and the Korean army was disbanded. The Japanese imposed a Governer - General. Some resistance continued from the remnants of the Korean Army for 5 years - but it was eventually driven out to Manchuria. Many Koreans emigrated to Manchuria, Shanghai and Hawaii.
Koreans had very little freedom - they had no freedom of association, assembly, press or speech. The Japanese imposed their own educational system on Korea - one effect of this was that subjects like Korean history and language were excluded, and there was heavy emphasis on the Japanese language. Japanese could trade in Korea, but not the other way round. Many farmers were deprived of their land, which was sold cheaply to Japanese. Many Koreans emigrated to Manchuria or Japan in search of jobs. Korean martial arts were suppressed, and Japanese ones taught in their place.
The Japanese did, however, develop communications and transport links. This period also saw the birth of Ch'ondoGyo, a new religion, which was a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism & Christianity.

In 1919, there were nationwide anti-colonial rallies. Independence from Japan was declared on 1 March 1919.
2 million people attended a peaceful rally - however, the Japanese responded with force, killing about 23,000 and arresting about 47,000. Meanwhile, in Shanghai in April 1919, Syngman Rhee, An Ch'ang Ho and Kim Ku formed a Provisional Korean government. The Japanese eased off slightly, but in 1931 reimposed military rule.

Second World War & after

During the period of Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945, Korea was systematically strip-mined for its raw materials and cheap labour to build Japan's newly industrialising economy. In 1941, the Japanese tried to completely obliterate Korea as a nation - in terms of Korean religion, books, magazines, newspapers etc. The subjugation was total: Koreans were not even allowed to speak their own language, and were forced to use Japanese names. More than 100,000 Koreans were drafted to fight in the Japanese Army, work in mines, factories etc. The Japanese war machine was also notoriously supplied with female sex slaves ("comfort women"). Most of the estimated 200,000 Asian women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military were Korean. In the meantime the Korean independence movement was fighting the Japanese in China.

The significance of the 38th parallel is that is was the line above which, at the end of World War 2, Japanese soldiers could surrender to the then USSR, and below it to the USA. This line ended up being the boundary between North & South Korea.

Japanese apology - 1998

The Japanese Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, expressed his country's "deep remorse" for the suffering caused during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. In the first written World War II apology ever issued by Japan to a specific country, Mr Obuchi "sincerely recognised the historical fact that our country inflicted tremendous damage and suffering on the people of South Korea through the colonial rule during a certain period of the past and expressed deep remorse and heartfelt apology over this."
Japan's Emperor Akihito also expressed "deep sorrow" over the suffering inflicted by Japan on the Korean people.
However,the thousands of South Korean women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army angrily rejected Tokyo's apology-they wanted a direct apology for "crimes" against the women and compensation.

Korean War (1950-1953)

After the 2nd World War, there was pressure from the UN for free elections. The Soviets banned elections in the North; in the South, Syngman Rhee was elected President. North Korea invaded South Korea, and eventually China, the US and the UN all got involved. Approximately 4 million people died during this conflict.

Choi Hong Hi (1918 - 2002)

Born in what is now North Korea, as a youth he was frail and quite sickly, a constant source of worry for his parents. Even at an early age, however, he showed a strong and independent spirit. At the age of twelve he was expelled from school for agitating against the Japanese authorities who were in control of Korea. After his expulsion, his father sent him to study calligraphy under one of the most famous teachers in Korea, Mr. Han II Dong. Han was also a master of Taek Kyon, the ancient Korean art of foot fighting. The teacher, concerned over the frail condition of his new student, began teaching him the rigorous exercises of Taek Kyon to help build up his body. In 1937, Choi was sent to Japan to further his education. Shortly before leaving , however, the youth had the misfortune to engage in a rather heated argument with a massive professional wrestler who promised to literally tear the youth limb from limb at their next encounter. Other sources say that the wrestler was set on his trail after a gambling dispute! The threat seemed to give a new impetus to young Choi's training in the martial arts.

In Kyoto, Choi met a fellow Korean, Mr. Him, who was engaged in teaching the Japanese martial art, Karate. With two years of concentrated training, Choi attained the rank of first degree black belt. These techniques, together with Taek Kyon (foot techniques), were the forerunners of modern Taekwon-Do. There followed a period of both mental and physical training, preparatory school, high school, and finally the University in Tokyo. During this time, training and experimentation in his new fighting techniques were intensified until, with attainment of his second degree black belt, he began teaching at a YMCA in Tokyo, Japan.

Choi recounted a particular experience from this period of time. There was no lamp-post in the city that he didn't strike or kick to see if the copper wires ahead were vibrating in protest.
"I would imagine that these were the techniques I would use to defend myself against the wrestler, Mr. Hu if he did attempt to carry out his promise to tear me limb from limb when I eventually returned to Korea."

With the outbreak of World War II, Choi was forced to enlist in the Japanese army through no volition of his own. While at his post in Pyongyang, North Korea, he was implicated as the planner of the Korean Independence Movement and interned at a Japanese prison during his eight month pretrial examination.

While in prison, to alleviate the boredom and keep physically fit, Choi began practicing this art in the solitude of his cell. In a short time, his cellmate and jailer became students of his. Eventually, the whole prison courtyard became one gigantic gymnasium.

The liberation in August 1945 spared Choi from an imposed seven year prison sentence (some sources say it was a death sentence). Following his release, the ex-prisoner journeyed to Seoul where he organised a student soldier’s party. In January of the following year, Choi was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the new South Korean army, the "Launching Pad" for putting Taekwon-Do into a new orbit.

Soon after, he made company commander in Kwang-Ju where the young second lieutenant lighted the torch of this art by teaching his entire company and was then promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to Tae Jon in charge of the Second Infantry Regiment.

While at his new post, Choi began spreading the art not only to Korean soldiers but also to the Americans stationed there. This was the first introduction to Americans of what would eventually become known as Taekwon-Do.
1947 was a year of fast promotion. Choi was promoted to captain and then major. In 1948, he was posted to Seoul as the head of logistics and became Taekwon-Do instructor for the American Military Police School there. In late 1948, Choi became a lieutenant colonel.

In 1949, Choi was promoted to full colonel and visited the United States for the first time, attending the Fort Riley Ground General School. While there, this art was introduced to the American public. And in 1951, brigadier general.

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 organised 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. In Choi's words, the new martial art was 'superior in both spirit and technique to Japanese Karate'.
In the latter part of that year, he commanded Chong Do Kwan (Gym of the Blue Wave), the largest civilian gym in Korea; Choi was also promoted to major general.

Technically, 1955 signaled the beginning of Taekwon-Do as a formally recognised art in Korea. During that year, a special board was formed which included leading master instructors, historians, and prominent leaders of society. A number of names for the new martial art were submitted.

On the 11th of April, the board summoned by Gen. Choi, decided on the name of Taekwon-Do which had been submitted by him. This single unified name of Taekwon-Do replaced the different and confusing terms; Dang Soo, Gong Soo, Taek Kyon, Kwon Bup, etc. He later fell into disgrace with the South Korean authorities - some sources say it was because he visited North Korea, others because of internal South Korean politics. He died of stomach cancer in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital on 15 June 2002, leaving a wife, two daughters & a son.