Choi Hong-hi, who has died aged 83 of stomach cancer, was
a prime mover in the development of the Korean martial
art of taekwondo: he helped to shape it, name it and spread
it to 123 nations, often through personal visits. His title
derived from a career that took him to the rank of major
general in the South Korean army.
martial arts achievements were threefold. First, in 1952
he brought about the adoption of training
in martial arts as an aid to South Korean military
conditioning. Secondly, he supported the development
of Korean karate,
given the name taekwondo in 1955, which he believed
in both spirit and technique to Japanese karate".
Lastly, he and his students spread taekwondo across
the globe, and saw it become a medal sport in Sydney
practitioners argued over a number of names for the form
of Korean karate unified during
the 1950s and 60s, but Choi won acceptance for taekwondo
("way of kick and fist"), and in 1966 founded
the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF).
For the rest of his life, he led demonstration
tours all over the world. His first manual in English,
Taekwon-Do (1965), eventually led to the publication
of an entire encyclopedia on the art in 1985.
Born in what is now North Korea when it
was under Japanese occupation, Choi fled to Japan to
complete his education after a wrestler was set on his
trail following a gambling dispute. In 1942, he was drafted
into the Japanese army, but was imprisoned for attempting
to escape to join the opposition Korean Liberation Army
in 1945. Only the liberation of Korea saved him from
the death penalty.
After the war, the division of Korea between
north and south left him unable to return to the land
of his birth. He rose quickly in the new South Korean
army, and, two years after the outbreak of the Korean
war in 1950, he created an officer training programme
and an infantry division that provided taekwondo instructors.
the cessation of hostilities in 1953, his rise continued,
and in 1961 he supported the military
coup d'état, but suffered a setback when General Park
Chung-Hee emerged as the new president. In the late
1940s, Park had received a death sentence, later rescinded,
from a military panel that had included Choi, who was
thus forced to retire from the military following the
In 1962, he was sent to Malaysia as ambassador,
but after his return to South Korea in 1965 he continued
to find life under the Park regime so intolerable that
in 1972 he left for Canada. Choi took the headquarters
of the ITF to Toronto with him, and South Korea responded
by forming a new organisation, the World Taekwondo Federation
(WTF), based in Seoul.
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
it as treasonous.
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 undeniable.
Choi leaves his wife, two daughters and
Choi Hong-hi, martial arts expert, born
November 9 1918; died June 15 2002