“A Killing Art – the Untold History of Taekwon-Do” by Alex Gillis (updated Oct 25, 2011)

A Book Review By Wee Sun, Ngiaw – Special Correspondent, TKD Times Magazine.


Those who had received their TKD training in the 1960s and 1970s, this book provides an informative insight into the geo-political and military history on the development of Taekwon-Do, featuring the pioneer Instructors spearheaded by General Choi

And it will definitely make an interesting read for those had started learning TKD in the 1980s, 1990s, and right up to the present moment. This book entitled, “A Killing Art – the untold history of Taekwon-do” takes the form of narrative stories of struggle for power and domination punctuated with allegations of bribery, corruption, assassination and blackmail. Some of the names of Korean Masters mentioned in the book may be familiar to some of us who had had the opportunity to have been taught by them.

Written by Alex Gillis, a Canadian Instructor who received his training from ITF Korean Instructors, this book, as the author admitted, is partly biography, and partly memoir streamed together, giving a seemingly bizarre account of how General Choi, during his pre and post ITF era maneuvered his game plans in exploiting his Korean Instructors and dictating to his advantage, thus claiming authorship to the founding of the art, though there were several ‘founders’ of the various ‘kwans’ (schools)earlier before him. [His 4th Degree was awarded to him by one of the earlier seniors in Korea]

Even more grotesquely descriptive were the stories of the involvement of KCIA, CIA and the famous cult preacher Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church with some of the well-known pioneer Korean instructors in the United States. Plots and counter plots of assassination, and ‘gangsters’ ala mafia’ were treated as customary events during these turbulent times of Taekwon-Do’s historical development.

Some of the Korean Instructors [who are by now Grandmasters] are still alive to reminisce those tumultuous events, feeling morose at having had to experience such anguished moments of their lives. One of them is Grandamster Kim Bok Man whom I met recently in November 2008 with the assistance of a colleague who managed to trace him at his dojang in New Jersey

Grandmaster Kim had graded me in 1968 in Singapore YMCA where I received my early TKD training. And much to my surprise and awe, a picture of me in the group photo of the Grading test was found hanging on the wall of his dojang in New Jersey– after a lapse of 40 years!

Grandmaster Kim as some of you may know was considered the pioneer in introducing TKD in South East Asia. The book did mention that during the time when Gen Choi was the Korean Ambassador to Malaysia , Grandmaster Kim together with Master Woo Jae Lim ( now deceased) were instrumental in developing, formatting and refining the 16 original ITF patterns at the compound of the Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur under the starry eyes of Gen Choi.

Talking and listening to his stories after a lapse of 40 years was quite an experience, especially his emotional outbursts of lashing out at those who ‘betrayed’ him during those troubling periods.

The hard cover book comes with chapters creatively crafted under the headings of the tenets of Taekwon-do, such as indomitable spirit, courtesy, self control, and perseverance though the contents within this chapters may not lend credence to the spirit of this tenets, belying the scandalous and controversial series of events that had occurred since the introduction of TKD to the martial art world.

The changing of the guards under the helm of the Presidents of both the two world bodies of ITF and WTF was also marred with scandals and disgrace that were heralded as breaking news in the world of martial art, and TKD in particular.

In one of the chapters, the story was told of the Korean government officials raiding the residence of the former President of WTF and discovered millions of dollars in currency notes and expensive gifts and items being stashed away in the cupboards. It was reported that millions of government funds meant to be disbursed to the world body were kept by the former President. The rest was history as he was found guilty of corruption and CBT and was sentenced to jail. The current President of ITF was not spared either, as allegations of corruption and embezzlement of funds were reported in the inner circles of the TKD community.

For the past 5 decades or so, TKD has been tossed around as a political tool manipulated by the major players to forge their struggle for power, dominance and financial gain. The very fact that ITF has split into more than three world bodies bespeaks the lamented commercialization of the martial art. It was reported that WTF with its Kukiwon headquarters in Seoul, Korea, is also embroiled in such similar scandals.

When a question was posed to Grandmaster Kim Bok Man as to his purpose of pending visit to Seoul, South Korea in December 2008. he answered vaguely that he will be having some official discussions relating to TKD, about the condition of certificate issuance, inferring that another new TKD body might be set up.

On another piece of development, it was also reported Choi Jung Hwa, Gen Choi’s son, was in South Korea recently revealing some controversial information to the government officials accusing the current ITF President to be acting as a government spy for North Korea.

In light of such circumstances and development surrounding TKD, will the proposal for the unification of TKD ever become a reality or is it just an exercise in futility?

One thing is certain, there will be many steep mountains to climb, there will be more challenges to overcome, and last but not least, more concerted effort is needed in the ‘slaying of the beast’, and that is the EGO, if ever TKD is be free from the shackles of one-upmanship and territorial turf dominance.

For those serious TKD practitioners who nonchalantly continue to focus on the traditional and spiritual values of the art, making positive contributions in promoting goodwill and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie, there is still a beacon of hope to excel in the perfection of execution of techniques that this art offers.

Against the backdrop of continuing struggle for dominance and control for selfish gains, the serious practitioner has to be steadfast and disciplined, and diligently divorce himself from such temptations of ‘wheeling and dealing’. He has to come to terms with the realization that, viewed from spiritual perspectives, there exist the many dimensions of reality when one meditates and transcends the egoic self. He will then find the answers as to the much sought after secrets of happiness and life fulfillment

Some 2,500 years ago, a wise man became enlightened and preached to the world that LIFE in the relative world, there will be happiness and sorrow, love and hatred, richness and poverty, laughter and sadness, freedom and bondage, war and peace and all the dualities in living. In short, the wise man said, LIFE situation contains SUFFERING.

He further revealed the prognosis on the causes of suffering:

* Identification with a separate self;

*Attachment to the ego;

*Clinging to the permanency in life;

He then prescribed the cure for this suffering – in what we call the noble eightfold path.

Time constraint does not permit to go into details of this noble eightfold path, but perhaps one of the most important and cardinal concepts amongst them that, through the life long practice of TKD, one precept that one can cultivate and achieve is:

RIGHT MINDFULNESS – mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness.

Every movement and step that we execute in our TKD practice is consciousness in motion, to be totally focused in the present moment awareness – the witnessing self observing the martial artist performing the art. Practiced progressively over periods of time, the martial artist and the art converge and merge into one wave of consciousness – the martial artist becomes the art in motion. (The Rig Veda of India’s vedic science also mentions about the Samhita of Rishi, Devata and Chandas having similar transcendental experience and spiritual understanding on the 3-in-1 consciousness)

Upon experiencing the transcendence on the boundaries of our thought, the many dimensions of reality give the notion that our body is just our re-cycled earth, our body fluids are re-cycled water, our breath is re-cycled air, and our thoughts are re-cycled information. Is there permanency in life that we need to cling so fearfully not knowing who we are, where do we come from, what is the purpose of our life?

One favorite past-time whenever traveling to places of sights and sceneries, is to visit the cemeteries and glimpse at the tombstones and the dash sign ( – ) in between the two dates. Therein lies the greatest revelation about our LIFE. Our lives are just a dash, pure and simple. We are mortal beings. And having realized this simple truth, we are a step closer to the secrets of happiness and the awakening to enlightenment.

For those who are interested in ordering the book, it is available at www.amazon.com , now presently offering valuable discounts.

By: Master Ngiaw Wee Sun

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