Tae Kwon Do at a Crossroad: Some Thoughts About Its Future


Transformation in the Korea Peninsula toward the 21st Century:  Peace, Unity and Progress”

July 10, 1993

SAVOY, IL 61874

            Three aims govern this paper.  In the first part, I want to argue that the identity of Tae Kwon Do is in crisis.  If a solid identity of Tae Kwon Do is not reestablished, its further growth and development will be stifled.  In the second part, I want to establish the claim that we must take the identity crisis of Tae Kwon Do as an opportunity to redefine its meaning and foundation.  This will makeTae Kwon Do more relevant to everyday life and make it more meaningful to a larger, more diverse population.  Here, I will examine the practice and teaching of Tae Kwon Do using four educational models, the synthesis of which provides a working model for reestablishing the meaning and foundation of Tae Kwon Do.  Lastly, I will offer my interpretation of Tae Kwon Do in accordance with this working model.  This attempt is not meant to espouse my interpretation as the only legitimate approach, but to evoke further discussion by illustrating one method for reestablishing the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do.


The Identity Crisis of Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do has experienced remarkable growth among the population in recent decades (Krucoff, 1993; McLean-Ibrahim, 1990; Rifkin, 1992). Tae Kwon Do’s popularity has grown to the extent that it was adopted as an exhibition game in the Olympics.  At present, one of the most common topics discussed in earnest by Tae Kwon Do practitioners is whether it will gain the legitimate status of a regular event in the forthcoming Olympics.  Just as many of us are overwhelmed, so are we impressed by such dramatic growth on a global level.  No one denies that the expansion of Tae Kwon Do deserves celebration.

However, we also need to realize that the expansion of Tae Kwon Do is an historical event laden with serious challenges. The critical issue emerging at this historic juncture is: Does the identity of  Tae Kwon Do lie in sport or martial art?  The question of identity is not a trivial one. It determines the direction of Tae Kwon Do practice.  While we tend to celebrate the phenomenon of expansion itself, we have shied away from the question of identity presented by it.

Given that the Olympics is the clearly a sporting event, members of the Tae Kwon Do community are obliged to make a choice as their practice prepares to become an Olympic event:  Do we change Tae Kwon Do’s identity from martial art to sport?  Or,do we create a new identity by combining elements from both martial arts and sports?  The former option means that Tae Kwon Dowould be classified with combative sports like boxing and wrestling. The latter option would move Tae Kwon Do in the direction in which Judo has gone.  But it is important to note that Judo has declined in participation since its inclusion in the Olympics.

Granted that the success of a particular martial art can be measured by many standards besides its popularity, some degree of popularity must exist for the art to survive.  Although it is difficult to make concrete conclusions regarding Judo’s decline, I believe that we can make some valid observations.  At the time of Judo’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics, a significant percentage of the population was engaged in the practice of this martial art.  Today this is far from the case.  I can’t scientifically explain the cause of this drop in popularity, however I can infer from my experience that competition may have been a major factor.  Of course, this does not rule out the possibility of other contributing factors,  For example, it may be that after Judo’s inclusion in the Olympics Judo masters were not as active as Tae Kwon Do masters in recruiting new students.  Clearly, the relationship between Judo’s inclusion in the Olympics and its decline in popularity is in need of further study.  It is especially relevant to Tae Kwon Do practitioners as their art has now eclipsed Judo’s former level of popularity.

Because of these types of concerns about competition, there are those who suggest a third option for the identity of Tae KwonDo, that of keeping the practice free of the influence of competitive sports.  Indeed, supporters of this option oppose the inclusion ofTae Kwon Do in the Olympics. However,  I am aware of no research conducted to examine the viability of these options.

In my view, many Tae Kwon Do masters would not advocate viewing Tae Kwon Do solely as a sport. They know better than administrators that Tae Kwon Do appeals to them and to a wide range of the population because it is more than boxing or wrestling. I believe Tae Kwon Do has lost attractiveness to diverse populations in Korea because it is increasingly perceived as a competitive sport rather than a martial art form. The majority of Tae Kwon Do practitioners are children since emphasis on competition tends to exclude adults,  Thus, we are left with two viable options,  viewing Tae Kwon Do as both martial art and sport or viewing it as a genuine martial art.

When we choose to view Tae Kwon Do as a combination of martial art and sport, the questions that immediately arise are:  IsTae Kwon Do as both a martial art and a sport possible?  If so,  what does it look like?  Is that choice promising?  Foreseeing the identity of Tae Kwon Do as both martial art and sport is not that difficult because it is the trend presently permeating the definition and practice of Tae Kwon Do in the West. Competitions concentrate on point count, technique and winning.  As such competitions begin to dominate Tae Kwon Do, people increasingly adopt the idea that Tae Kwon Do is mainly kicking and punching and that a practitioner’s skill at throwing kicks and punches is the sole indication of his/her development.   This observation, if not exaggerated, tells us that Tae Kwon Do is already assuming the characteristics of both martial art and sport even though we have not made an explicit choice.  But, what must be noted in this unconscious transition to the combination of martial art and sport is that the features of competitive sports are taking hold of the practice of Tae Kwon Do while those features of the martial arts are fading away.

            In my view, many advocates of a combined identity favor the integration of sports elements into Tae Kwon Do primarily because they see this as a way to further popularize Tae Kwon Do.  But if we are to take advantage of this opportunity by introducing sports elements within the boundaries of the practice of Tae Kwon Do as a martial art, we must reflect upon the following question: Which aspects of sports and martial arts would constitute an identity of Tae Kwon Do that will attract more students without compromising its integrity as a highly respected martial art form.

Our third option is that of renewing Tae Kwon Do’s identity as primarily and essentially a martial art form. This option is predicated on the philosophy of action.  According to this philosophy(which I will develop more fully in a subsequent paper), it is through action that we gain experience.  And it is through experience that we learn to develop our own way of life, which in itself is a philosophy.  Thus it can be argued that repeated physical and mental training leads us to fuller self-realization and self-actualization, eventually to a harmonious unity of  mind, body and spirit.  Although this argument is convincing to some degree, it entails its own problems:  What are self-realization and self-actualization?  Why do we need them?  What is their relevance to our everyday lives?

This discussion reveals that redefining the meaning of Tae Kwon Do as a martial art is urgent whether we choose to view it as both sport and martial art or as a genuine martial art.  Not only is redefining Tae Kwon Do the way to make it renew its genuineness as a martial art, it is also the way to draw more people to its practice.  The future of Tae Kwon Do is open-ended:  It will either be promoted qualitatively and quantitatively, and flourish;  or it will be degraded into a combative sport, and diminish.


Toward a model for the renewal of Tae Kwon Do

Without knowing the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do, we will have little guidance for developing the educational practices necessary to re-establish this martial art.  Further, the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do are by no means self-evident.  They are not naturally given but socially and educationally formed.  Changes to the foundation and meaning of Tae KwonDo have depended very much on historical and situational contexts.  Yet this is not to say that the definition of Tae Kwon Do is or ought to be simply a reflection of existing social contexts. Rather than simply being passively affected by existing social contexts, it must partly determine the social contexts in which it finds itself. Tae Kwon Do must in some measure create the social contexts to which it must, in turn, be responsive.             There are four distinct educational models which may be used to classify the methods by which Tae Kwon Do has been and can be, taught and practiced.  These models provide us with a background for reestablish the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do.  They are, which I will call, the exerciser model, the monumentalist model, the substantive model and the communicative model.

Model I. This model, which we may think of as the exercise model, is based on assumption that the foundation and meaning ofTae Kwon Do can be established through intensive and continuous exercise of this martial art.  This model tends to avoid reflection on why and how we practice Tae Kwon Do.  Instead, it maintains that better technique and increased exercise will lead us to properly define Tae Kwon Do.  Although this model is justified in noting that bodily discipline is Tae Kwon Do’s major prac­tice, it cannot demon­strate how physical activity, alone, con­stitutes the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do.  Further, under the exerciser model, guidance and goals are not expressly communicated by the master and student.   The communication which does occur is physical and one-way, from master to student.  Because of this, the student is not challenged to think creatively, nor allowed to impart his/her own unique contribution to the practice.  Thus, this model does little to encourage personal growth and the application of the principles of Tae Kwon Do to everyday life.

Model II. I call this model the monumentalist model. This model recognizes the need for both mental and physical practice.  It laments that Tae Kwon Do’s foundation has been irreparably damaged by the deterioration of some kind of authentic, universal idea of  it as a martial art. This erosion is the result of our failure to transmit a body of established cultural monuments, hence the model’s name.

According to the monumentalist model, there must be some established foundation which is timeless and equally accessible by all, at all times.  It is this foundation which must be used as a fixed and timeless standard in deciding the ideal of the enlightened TaeKwon Do. The source of this standard is traditional religion and philosophy.  This model is also characterized by a dualistic idea ofTae Kwon Do practice.  Physical practice for self-defense and person­al strength, and the study of philosophy, psychology or religion, to promote individual growth and maturity.  Thus, the superficial purpose of Tae Kwon Do is bodily discipline and its deeper purpose is to ensure the opportunity for everyone to learn to act and think according to the transmitted ideal.

The monumentalist model is justified in arguing that Tae Kwon Do requires some philosophical and psychological foundation to serve as a guide for practitioners.  Yet, it mistakenly assumes that the foundation must be a pre-formed universal,  which is always separate from physical practice. Because the foundation is always presented by the master as fixed and unalterable, there is no room for the practitioner to participate in determining the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do under this one-way system of communication.  Nor is there a possibility for reinterpreting and changing Tae Kwon Do’s foundation.  This rigidity, often causes the monumentalist model to be authoritative and oppressive. Any attempt to reinterpret the prescribed foundation under this model would earn the practitioner the label of a deviant.

Combined, the denial of the significance of practitio­ner participation, the rejection of a plural cultural orientation for TaeKwon Do’s foundation and meaning, and the separation of mental and physical practice,  result in passive students who are not fully prepared to creatively apply their practice to the changing world around them.

Model III. This model, which I refer to as the substantive model,  entertains the idea that the foundation of Tae Kwon Do can be reconstructed through creating and articulating a coherent scheme of values and meanings.  For example, this value scheme may be a code of civility, the harmony of yin and yang, or simply the ideal of the individual committed to the improvement of self and soci­ety.  The value scheme is highly significant to this model since Tae Kwon Do practitioners are seen to proceed to exercise and think on the basis of a shared understanding of moral virtues and their pursuit of the art of living.

In some ways, the substantive model may appear similar to the monumentalist model, however there are two significant differences.  The substantive model opposes the separation of physical practice from the cultural and philosophical foundation of TaeKwon Do.  It also disavows the transmission of a pre-formed, universal value system for this foundation.  Thus substantive model affirms the multitude of values and cultural traditions that practitioners bring to Tae Kwon Do, while making a common foundation available to them.  This characteristic also allows the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do to be responsive to diverse and constantly changing social contexts, resulting in practice highly applicable to everyday life.  Such an arrangement encourages the creativity of both student and master.

However,  the flaw of the substantive model occurs when the distinction is blurred between the recognition of a significant cultural tradition and a conventional or conformist inclination to uncritically wed to the tradition (Benhabib, 1992).  To the extent that practitioners obscure this distinction, the substantive model winds up not to problematize, but to take for granted the downside of convention (i.e. power inequali­ty, prejudice, unjustifiable ideology)  which is generated within and between cultural traditions.  Unchecked by procedures that would include broad-based communication, the substantive model’s conventional inclinations are apt to end up in an implausible situation where the articulated foundation of Tae Kwon Do turns out to be the value scheme of a specific prevailing social group.

Within the vicinity of those problems arises the possibility that the substantive model may neither prevent the imposition of one’s interpretation of world on others, nor encourage diverse participa­tion, thereby shutting down the two-way communication between student and master.  Thus, the substantive model may result in the exclusion and marginalization of some cul­tural traditions.  For example, few Dojangs encourage an unbiased practice of Tae Kwon Do that spans differences in age, ethnicity, gender and personal orientation.  In the absence of  communica­tive, reflective procedures that would prevent domination, this unhappy tendency becomes conspicuous as it begins to weigh heavily on the search for commonality between cultural traditions.  But, proponents of the substantive model anticipate the development of the necessary communicative, reflective procedures that would alleviate the model’s short­comings. Such procedures are emphasized in next model.

Model IV. This model, which I call the communicative model, attempts to establish a foundation of Tae Kwon Do by elaborating the universal procedures of participation and communication.  In the communicative model, the foundation of Tae KwonDo is the corollary of freedom and diversity in participation and communication.  These procedures seek to redistribute the authority between master and student in an attempt to promote broader and more effec­tive participation along with the development of more inclusive procedures of communication.  Here, two-way communication means not only linguistics, but also physical communication through bodily exercise, sparring, and other interactions in and out of the Dojang.

This ideal of free participation and communication entails (1) that every member with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in communication,(2)that every member is allowed to question any assertion whenever,(3) that every member be allowed to express his\her attitudes, desire and needs. (adapted from Habermas, 1990,p. 8)

Tae Kwon Do practitioners reflect on their own viewpoints and on those of others.  They attempt to generate consensus about the purposes and practices of Tae Kwon Do while classifying the differences in power and culture among themselves.  These arrangements are expected to provide a way of eliminating the domination and marginalization that can plague communication and participation in the substantive model.  In this respect, the communicative model is a bold approach to overcoming many of the flaws of other models.

However, the communicative model itself is not without flaw.  It’s anarchistic nature has the ability to promote chaos within the Dojang.  There undoubtedly those individuals who push the limits of the communicative procedures to the limit and use their freedom to promote their individual needs at the expense of others.


The synthesized ideal

What is evident from this inquiry into the proceeding models, is that each alone does not offer an adequate foundation.  Clearly there must be an alternative to potential oppression, domination and anarchy.  I believe that alternative is not found in the discarding of these models, but in the eclectic synthesis of them.

As both the substantive model and the communicative model indicate, the foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do can be explored within the unity of bodily practice and reflective, communicative practice.  Borrowing from the communication procedures of the communicative model,  everyone in the synthesized model is responsible for defining the meaning and foundation of Tae KwonDo through a democratic, rational discussion.  Because everyone contributes in the forming of the foundation of Tae Kwon Do, each individual is expected to respect authority and exercise self-discipline according to the resulting foundation. This eclectic foundation recognizes the different cultures, education levels and lifestyles of the participants.  It is affirmed and refined through on-going participation.

This process can be defined as the self-formative process of Tae Kwon Do:  The foundation and meaning of Tae Kwon Do are construed by its practitioners who are searching for a way to enter a communication about Tae Kwon Do’s own nature, knowing that in the process of exercising their practice and interpreting its nature, they are also engaged in the process of constantly constituting it.

The self-formative process of Tae Kwon Do can be justified only when it satisfies certain conditions.  First, as the substantive model ar­gues, it requires the articulation of certain substantive presuppositions, the most relevant of which is the type of individual and society that Tae Kwon Do supports.  Participants in the dis­course need to reflect on their commitment to self-development to the good of their community. Second, the practice itself must be subject to ongoing critique and change in order to encourage the unlimited and universally accessible par­ticipa­tion by all (Benhabib, 1989-1990).  Third, as the substantive model indicates, the self-formative process must include the issues of cultural value and meaning, subjective experiences, and good life.  This is an arrangement which not only recognizes the heterogeneous cultural contexts which shape the interests and needs of Tae Kwon Doparticipants, but expands and enhances their perspective.

Finally, as both the substantive model and communicative model suggest, the self-formative process must encourage the reflective capacity by which participants “reflect back their own interpretations and standards (to provide) a foundation for reconsidering the commitments and goals” (Feinberg, 1989, p. 18).  On the basis of the development of this capacity, members of theTae Kwon Do community are empowered to engage in reestablishing their view­points and  revamping the foundation and function ofTae Kwon Do.

In preparing students to be members of the Tae Kwon Do community, who are capable of and desire to participate in the self-formative process of Tae Kwon Do, we need to concentrate on creating and providing an adequate learning process and context for the dimensions of the self-formative process specified so far.  In what follows, I will attempt to elaborate the preconditions of the substantive model that are significant in supporting the self-formative process of Tae Kwon Do.


The Tae Kwon Do ideal:  a  preliminary model

Elaboration of the Tae Kwon Do ideal can be initiated from the genealogy of                     Moo-Do.  Martial art is the translation of Moo-Do.  We can triangulate the meaning of Tae Kwon Do through understanding what Moo-Do and martial art signify.  The Chinese character                    /moo/ consists of       /guh/ and       /ji/.        /guh/ means “spear, attack, disturbance, and aggression” and       /ji/ means “to stop.”  Thus,       /moo/ together means “to stop the attack, distur­bance, and aggression.”  This etymological analysis tells that Moo originates from the practice of halting and pacifying war or disturbance.  In the context of modern life, we are involved in continuous disturbance:  Even without the occurrence of an extreme event like war, our capacity as human beings is finite, we must face death regardless.  Thus, we must accept that we cannot be totally free from disturbance, however we can learn to manage the disturbances that plague us.  We must view them as challenges to our lives.  But to do so, we must enhance our capacity to deal with them.  Construed in this way, “Moo” is a relevant practice to our everyday concern since it is the prac­tice of cultivating our capacity to deal with the set of inevitable and contingent disturbances arising in our lives.

For the purpose of operational distinction, we can identify three major sources of disturbance.  These are external, inter­nal, and a combination of both.  External disturbances are those which arise due to circumstances outside oneself.  They include the threat of physical violence to oneself or one’s fellows, or any  outward obstacle which stands in the way of accomplishing one’s goals.  External disturbances also include societal problems such as oppression and discrimination.

Internal disturbances are those which arise from within one’s own mind or body.  They can take the form of  basic physical needs or desires, such as food, shelter and sex.  Or, they can be related to one’s personality. For example, a lack of re­spect for others, a lack of ethics, irresponsibility, laziness, passivity, overconfidence, misjudgment and aggressiveness, can all contribute to conflict situations.

Finally, the source of disturbance may be both internal and external.  In many cases the causes of disturbance will not be separate, but interactive.  An external disturbance may provoke an internal response which causes conflict.  Further, the effects of external disturbances usually become greater for those who are burdened with­ serious internal disturbances.  For example, economic difficulties can cause the person of weak conscience to steal.

In practicing Moo-Do we are training to develop a strong self, in order to overcome both external and internal sources of disturbance.  The attitude of the student determines the nature of his character development.  We are not practicing in order to passively defend against every disturbance, but to approach disturbances as personal challenges which, when overcome, contribute to perso­nal growth.

Again, this can be seen etymologically. The Chinese character          /do/ encompasses        /ji/ and             /su/.               /ji/ means walking, behaving, and bodily practice.   /su/ means face, head, mind, thoughts, and ideas.  Thus,      /do/ together means “the way to live a life within a harmonious unity of body and mind.”

“Do” deals with becoming the ideal self in relation to the entire dimension of living, including our relationships with nature, others, and society as a whole.  The path to Do is grounded in the ethical; it is the mode of life one aspires to and includes enhancing our relationship with nature, others, and the local and global community.  Thus, Do is a bridging principle between the individual and the larger social context.  As a result, the path to Do demands philosophical self-reflection, an understanding of “Who am I?,” and “What is my moral relation to nature and society?”  That is, understanding oneself as an individual, as well as part of a larger whole.  By articulating the meaning and value of nature, others, and society, each individual is able to create his/her own way of life.  This is the art of living, and the goal of Moo-Do.

Based upon this interpretation of Moo-Do, we can tentatively include the following substantive characteristics in our synthesized ideal of  Tae Kwon Do:  Tae Kwon Do is harmony:  Physical, psychological and philosophical exercise bring one’s life into accord.  Tae Kwon Do is art:  The mind and body, usually separated in everyday life, work toward their reconciliation, unification and dynam­ics. As practitioners of Tae Kwon Do, we are in essence, a community of artists, helping each other in the process of realizing our aesthetics and values.  Tae Kwon Do is aesthetics:  The unity of mind and body allows practitioners to experience the beauty of their unifica­tion and to actualize their resulting potential power.  Tae Kwon Do is ethics:  Our beauty and power, once experienced, contribute to a different understanding of ourselves and our existence.  This further motivate us to lead harmonious lives with others and to work for the development of our community.  Tae Kwon Do is universal:  As seekers of the powerful and beautiful self, we understand each other’s intentions and attempt to embody into our dailly routine.

In light of these characteristics, we can reason that the ideals of Tae Kwon Do practitioner are those of the authentic person who can live the creative, imaginative life; the strong person who can mas­ter, overcome, and surpass all disturbance; and the concerned person who cares about social justice, right and wrong, and the welfare of others.(See note)

I must reemphasize that my model is not intended to define the practice of Tae Kwon Do in every time and place, for everyone.  In order to stand the test of time, this model must be continuously revised and renewed by ongoing communication so as to make it more relevant to the contexts where Tae Kwon Do is practiced and to the people involved in it–regardless of ability, age, creed, race, or economic status.



                        To summarize, the growth of Tae Kwon Do, while in need of celebration, must not be taken for granted.  Tae KwonDo’s inclusion in the Olympics presents us with a challenge, that of developing it quantitatively and qualitatively in the future.  To meet this challenge, we must reconstruct the foundation and meaning of this martial art, borrowing from existing models and synthesizing them into a flexible one that can be constantly renewed through continuing discussion, development and refinement.  In doing so, we will further Tae Kwon Do’s growth as it continues to contribute to the many dimensions of its practitioners’ lives.  It is my hope that this paper will suggests a healthy beginning for the task at hand.                   




Note:  Master Namsoo Hyong will elaborate further on  the ideals of the authentic, strong and concerned person; the unity of mind and body; viewing Tae Kwon Do as an art; and the art of living in a future paper.



About the Author:  Namsoo Hyong, age 38, came to the United States from Korea in 1980.  He began studying the martial arts in 1963 at the age of eight.  Since that time, he has advanced to become a 5th degree Black Belt and is applying for the 6th degree belt.  He is the Head Master for H.M.D. Academy, Inc. (Formerly Hyong Moo Do Academy) in Savoy, IL.  He also sponsors the University of Illinois Tae Kwon Do Club in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  Master Hyong currently serves as Seminar Coordinator for the Illinois State Tae Kwon Do Association.


Acknowledgments:  This paper would not have been possible without the editorial advising of Gi-Beom Lee.  I also am grateful for the input of Professors Giri Tikku and Mike Nelson, as well as the  members of the University of Illinois Korean Study Group.