An Interview with Grandmaster C.K. Choi ~ Philip Hawkins [updated Jan 06, 2018]

Grand Master Choi Chang Keun

This interview with GM C.K. Choi, one of the pioneers in Taekwon-Do,was conducted some years back and this website is re-publishing it for several reasons as listed below:

  • He was one of the TKD pioneers who first taught in Penang, Malaysia in the early 1960s;
  • Some of the current TKD Exponents practicing in Malaysia were not even born yet when he was teaching in Penang;
  • General Choi was the then Korean Ambassador to Malaysia;
  • As the following interview has mentioned, Gen. Choi had good relations with the Malaysian Government under the premiership of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman. There was one Minister,the late Encik Khir Johari who was conferred the Hon. 3rd Degree(?) Black Belt by Gen Choi.
  • Some of us the Malaysia National Team ( under MTF at that time ) renewed our friendship when we met up with him at the 2nd ITF World Championship in Oklahoma City, USA in Sept 1978.

For many the name Grand Master Choi Chang Keun is unfamiliar to them, but in its abbreviated form of ‘Grand Master C.K.Choi’ it brings instant recognition to anyone who has truly studied TaeKwon-Do.

For those who either trained under him, or have witnessed any of his performances as part of the ITF Demonstration teams of the 1960’s and 1970’s, they describe him as a man of awesome ability. He is renowned for his array of powerful kicking and jumping techniques and has attained a fearsome reputation when sparring.

Grand Master Choi is open and approachable, he has an actively astute mind, is an articulate, genuinely friendly man, who talk’s openly with a wealth of knowledge on both the techniques and history of TaeKwon-Do. You are also aware whilst in conversation with him that he also has both an inner strength, and a steely self confidence.

Q: Can I start by asking when you first became interested in the martial arts?

A: I began to study TaeKwon-Do in 1956 whilst I was still in middle school in the city of Won-Ju, South Korea. The Dojang I originally trained at was affiliated with the Chung Do Kwan. However in 1958 I started to train under Master (Major) Woo Jong Lim (Director of Tae Kwon Do for the Korean 1st Army) who although serving in the R.O.K. Army was also teaching at the only civilian Oh Do Kwan gym in Korea at that time. All the other Oh Do Kwan gyms taught only military personnel. As you know General Choi Hong Hi had founded the Tae Kwon Do (Oh Do Kwan) in 1954 with the assistance of Master (Captain) Nam Tae Hi.

Q: Which patterns were you practicing at this time?

A: I practiced Tae Kwon-Do patterns created by General Choi Hon Hi along with Karate patterns (Katas) and sparring patterns designed by my Instructor; Master Woo Jong Lim, in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s.

Q: I believe you became a TaeKwon-Do Instructor in the R.O.K. Army how did this come about?

A: I had attained a 2nd degree in TaeKwon-Do whilst training under Major Woo Jong Lim. At this time in 1960 Master Woo was appointed to the R.O.K .Army training center in Non San from Won-Ju and became Chief of Staff to General Choi. It was here that he asked me to give a TaeKwon-Do demonstration along with Master Han Cha Kyo for a TaeKwon-Do educational film. General Choi; who at this time was commander of the R.O.K. Army recruiting center, was watching.

He wanted a Tae Kwon Do educational film made and sent to the United States so that Tae Kwon Do could be introduced to there. After the demo had finished he asked if I would be interested in joining the Army to teach Tae Kwon Do. After discussing this proposal with my parents I accepted and joined the R.O.K. Army in 1960, after which I taught Tae Kwon Do at the R.O.K. Army’s largest recruiting center in Non-San.

Q: You were young to be teaching in the R.O.K. Army. Did this cause you any problems?

A: I had gained experience teaching as an assistant whilst training under Major Woo Jong Lim. I was the first Korean Tae Kwon Do (Oh Do Kwan) Champion in Tae Kwon Do in 1962, in sparring and patterns. I also taught under General Choi’s order. Therefore this helped me gain respect from those I trained. I had to train very hard not to disappoint Master Woo and General Choi and I was promoted to 3rd Degree Black Belt in 1962 by Master Woo Jong Lim.

Q: You are renowned for your flexibility and kicking abilities. How hard did you have to work on this or did it come naturally to you?

A: Although I have always trained hard I did have a degree of natural flexibility, which in truth I was not aware of until I started to teach TaeKwon-Do. (Grandmaster C.K. Choi then, without any warm up, dropped straight into both front and side splits with ease. He is 64 years old!) As regards my kicking, Major Woo Jong Lim emphasized to me to practice both left and right equally. I also practiced extensively with a bag to improve both my power and technique. I also practiced my punching and striking techniques endlessly, as well as my standing and jumping kicks.

Q: How many hours daily did you teach in the R.O.K. Army?

A: I would teach for two and a half-hours in the morning and evening respectively -5 days a week – and for two and a half-hours on a Saturday morning. I must emphasis that the training in the military was extremely hard, as it should be. We would practice patterns, breaking and sparring. We also spent time on physical conditioning that included lots of running which helped create more power and improve our stamina. In addition we spent time conditioning our hands and feet. You can have beautiful techniques, but without the power it does not work for self-defense. This is what military TaeKwon-Do was all about. We would also practice defenses against bayonet and rifle attacks.

Q: I’ve heard it said that upon first meeting General Choi and joining the R.O.K. Army that he told you to go into a room and just practice TaeKwon-Do on your own. Is this correct?

A: Yes. He told me to go to the gym and practice Tae Kwon Do.

Q: Did you also train under Grandmaster Kim Bok Man at this time?

A: No, I did not. When I was teaching in the Korean Army Training Centre under General Choi and Master Woo Jong Lim, Master Kim Bok Man came to see me in 1961. I spoke with him for about 5 minutes. That was the first and last meeting with him in Korea. When I went to Singapore I met him and stayed with him for about a week before going to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. However my masters were General Choi and Master Woo Jong Lim (Master Lim became a Major General in the 1980’s)

Q: Could you tell us about your competition career in the early 1960’s?

A: In 1962 Master Woo Jong Lim created the Tae Kwon Do Championship in sparing, patterns, breaking and special breaking. Master Woo held the 1st championship in Won-Ju Korea with the assistance of Kim Jong Chan and others in February 1963. I won the first Tae Kwon Do (Oh Do Kwan) Championship in both the sparring and patterns.

This was the first Tae Kwon Do Championships ever held in Tae Kwon Do history. I won the second championship in June of 1963. I also won the first Korean Tae Soo Do (Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, and Kong Soo Do) heavyweight championship in the 3rd, 4th and 5th degree division in 1963. I was the smallest in the division, but quite fast so the bigger opponents found it hard to hit me. The rules used were similar to those used by the WTF today but we used more hand techniques. In that tournament 1st and 2nd degree were divided into light, middle and heavy, as were the 3rd 4th & 5th degrees. This was the first combined Martial Arts tournament in history.

Q: Why was it called Tae Soo Do?

A: There were Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do styles that wanted to affiliate with the Korean National Athletic Association under their respective names. Therefore the Korean National Athletic Association told them to come up with a unified name.

The two Tae Kwon Do representatives wanted to use the Tae Kwon Do name but the seven Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do representatives did not. The only name that could be agreed upon was Tae Soo Do. Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do Masters wanted to use the word Soo as it means hand. As a result the Korean Tae Soo Do Association was formed and affiliated with the Korean National Athletic Association.

Q: I think many readers will be surprised by the name Tae Soo Do.

A: The Tae Soo Do name was suggested by Tang Soo Do Master, Lee Jong Woo who became the Vice President of KTA, Kuk Ki Won and WTF. Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do Masters would eventually control the Korean Tae Soo Do Association which became the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association in 1965.

I should also make it clear that I have a problem with those who have helped to cause confusion in Tae Kwon Do. I had a personal experience with them after becoming the first Korean Tae Soo Do heavyweight champion. There were 6 champions and 6 runner-ups set to go to Japan to represent Korea, for the goodwill tournament in 1963. 11 were from Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do and only one was from Tae Kwon Do. I was supposed to go to Japan as part of this, but I was excluded from the team solely because I was the only Tae Kwon Do man

Now however they claim to represent and practice TaeKwon-Do. I would just like to know when they started to learn Tae Kwon Do. When I was practicing Tae Kwon Do in the late 1950’s early 60’s they certainly were not practicing Tae Kwon Do.

Q: Did you have any input into any of the patterns?

A: I was with General Choi from 1962 until 1981. At this time he was still creating the Tae Kwon Do patterns and I assisted him on the creation of the pattern Gae-Baek. When General Choi was appointed the Commander of the 6th Army Corps in 1961 I was invited many times to perform some new patterns that he created. After performing the patterns for him he would ask me “What do you think?” I then told him my opinions.

Q: How did the opportunity arise for you to go abroad to teach?

A: In 1962 General Choi asked me to go to Malaysia to teach (He was the Korean Ambassador to Malaysia) but at this time I was still in the R.O.K Army. After being discharged from the Army in 1963 General Choi invited me to come to Malaysia. I first met Master Rhee Ki Ha in Seoul. Korea in 1964 when we were both applying for our passports.

When we went to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get passports our passports the clerk at the counter told us that there was no such occupation as “Tae Kwon Do Instructor” listed. I asked what we should put down as our occupation on our passports. The clerk went away to consult with his superior. He eventually returned to us and said that we had been approved to have “Tae Kwon Do Instructor” on our passports. He told us we were the first Tae Kwon Do instructors recognized by the Korean government.

Q: In which country did you first teach?

A: I went to Malaysia in 1964 to teach Tae Kwon Do in Penang.

Q: How popular was TaeKwon-Do prior to your arrival?

A: Tae Kwon Do was already popular, as General Choi had started to teach there whilst he was the Korean Ambassador to Malaysia. However many referred to him as the Tae Kwon Do Ambassador as his goal was to teach everyone. General Choi was very friendly with the Prime Minister, Tunku Rahman, as well as many other Government officials.

We were asked to perform many demos like the one on Malaysian Independence Day when both the King and Prime Minister were in attendance. Tunku Rahman helped General Choi immensely.

Q: Were you now teaching the Ch’ang-Hon patterns?

A: I was teaching Tae Kwon Do patterns from Chon Ji upward. We did not use the term Ch’ang-Hon Patterns because there is only one Tae Kwon Do system; that which was founded by General Choi with the assistance of many Masters.

Q: You had quite a reputation at this time and yet many have said that both your appearance and demeanour were quite deceptive.

A: Yes this is true. My friends used to call me schoolmaster, as they said I had the appearance of one. But I have always had total confidence in my Tae Kwon Do ability. Once they saw my training they knew I was a good Tae Kwon Do Master.

Q: Did your students compete whilst you were in Malaysia?

A: Yes, many of my students were successful at the 1st Asian Championships held in Hong Kong in 1969. However, my teaching’s were not tournament based, but for self-defense. I used to tell my students that winning tournaments was fine, but if they were ever in danger they should also be able to save their own lives with the powerful techniques that they possess.

Q: Did you grade under General Choi at this time?

A: Yes. I did and I received 8th Degree Black Belt in 1981.

Q: How was your own training developing at this time?

A: I was always looking for better ways to train, especially with regards to power, speed, strength, stamina, flexibility and the application of techniques in sparring. If your body is flexible it is much easier to perform. This benefited my students greatly. Our objectives are to train our mind and body to achieve the highest level of physical fitness and mental discipline so that we can uncover the supreme person within each one of us. It is also important to practice the original Tae Kwon Do patterns to maintain the traditional Tae Kwon DO training system.

Q: Did you believe back in 1966 that TaeKwon-Do would achieve the global recognition that it has today?

A: Its beyond my belief that TaeKwon-Do has become as big as it has. Under the leadership of General Choi, many Pioneering Masters, instructors and supporters worked hard to teach and spread Tae Kwon Do all over the world. believe we all did our best to promote Tae Kwon Do and Korea.

Q: Were your current grades accepted by the ITF?

A: Yes. I think so. In 1981 I received 8th Degree Black Belt from the founder of Tae Kwon Do, General Choi. Who is not going to recognize that? Unless they are not a Tae Kwon Do organization. I was also one of the founding members of the ITF and received the No. 5 Recognition Plaque from the ITF.

Q: Do you think that the original pioneers of TaeKwon-Do receive the recognition that they deserve?

A: No. I don’t think so because the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association, Kuk KI Won and WTF, with the support of the Korean Government did not allow the teaching of the original Tae Kwon Do (ITF style) in Korea since 1973. The Korean government dissolved the ITF in Korea with the support of KTA and WTF because of General Choi’s opposition to President Park Jung Hee and his dictatorial regime. This is one of the reasons the original Tae Kwon Do Pioneers’ devotion and hard work has not been recognized by the Korean government.

It was wrong to ban and dissolve the original Tae Kwon Do in Korea because of General Choi’s personal political views. The Korean government officially approved Tae Kwon Do as Korea’s National Martial Art in 1965.

Since 1973 there has been no original Tae Kwon Do in Korea. Many people outside of Korea have more awareness of Tae Kwon Do’s history than the Korean people themselves. Unfortunately, there are people in Korea who tried to eliminate the truth for their own benefit and protection.

The Korean government is now in a position to recognize the original Tae Kwon Do, correct its history, and support its teaching in Korea again. This is the only way to honor all the Pioneering Masters and Instructors who have traveled the world to teach and spread Tae Kwon Do under the Korean name. They have been the real Korean patriots.

Q: How long was your stay in Malaysia?

A: I lived in Penang from 1964 to 1969 teaching Tae Kwon Do in Penang, Ipoh and Aloh Star. I had to teach in almost half of the country from time to time. I miss my old students very much. I hope to see them in the near future.

Q: Did you modify your teaching in any way from the way you taught in Korea?

A: The training method was the same whether you were in Korea, Singapore, Maylasia or Canada but I continued to develop modern training methods all the time. In my experience; when teaching, it is important to understand a beginner’s point of view. You do not want to train them too hard in the beginning. You do not train them as you would a champion.

Q: In 1973 you were chosen to be part of the ITF Demonstration Team that travelled the World. Could you please share with us any memories you have from this tour.

A: General Choi selected Masters Kong Young Ill, Rhee Ki Ha, Park Jong Soo and myself we were chosen to travel the world demonstrating, promoting and giving TaeKwon-Do seminars. We traveled for a total of 43 days. I have many happy memories of this tour. We performed in front of huge crowds in some wonderful stadiums. When we were giving a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt the stadium was full of people but they could not see from one end to another. We had to give four demonstrations, one on each side. They were impressed by our demonstrations and it seemed like we were treated like rock and roll stars. Our demonstrations were very popular everywhere we went.

Each host country provided our breaking materials. I recall on one occasion our boards had been soaked in water by a karate group to make the boards tougher, but we still broke them. On another occasion we (and our hosts) were embarrassed by a group of martial artists who gave a demonstration using, what I perceived to be tricks. I asked the MC to make a public announcement that I wanted to challenge anyone of the martial artists. It was out of character for me but I wanted to show them Tae Kwon Do’s power and skill. They quickly disappeared.

I also traveled frequently with General Choi in the late 1970’s. On one particular tour we traveled to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. This was the first Tae Kwon Do demonstration Team that ever visited communist countries. Some Korean Martial Art practitioners said that we were communist. However, the WTF invited these same countries to the 1977 WTF World Championships in Chicago and I was told they even paid for their expenses. So I was somewhat confused as to who was a communist and who was not. In 1979 I traveled throughout South America giving demonstrations and seminars, accompanying General Choi and Master J.C.Kim, and others.

Q: Who has impressed you most throughout your TaeKwon-Do career?

A: General Choi Hong Hi and General Woo Jong Lim. General Choi is the founder of Tae Kwon-Do. There was no Tae Kwon-Do prior to the 11th April 1955. I respected him immensely as he was both intelligent and creative. He devoted his life to create and develop Tae Kwon-Do with the assistance of Grand Master Nam Tae Hi and other Masters.

I would also like to mention General Woo. He had all the good qualities of a human being that any man would want to have. He taught me not only the best Tae Kwon Do techniques which allowed me to become the first Tae Kwon Do and Tae Soo Do champion but he also taught me values for life. I received Tae Kwon Do lessons and life lessons at the same time. Unfortunately General Choi and General Woo are not here with us now but I sincerely thank them for what they have done to make me who I am today. I would also like to thank all my Tae Kwon Do Pioneering friends who devoted their life to teach and spread Tae Kwon Do worldwide. You have been my good friends and my strength.

Q: I believe you were instrumental in the creation of the ITF emblem on the back of the Doboks. Can you tell us more about this?

A: General Choi asked me to develop a new Dobok for the ITF that was different from the karate style uniforms we were wearing. The emblem on the back of the ITF Dobok symbolizes a tree, which has continual growth. I designed this for everyone who practices Tae Kwon Do. It was not designed for profit. However, recently I have heard that people have tried to patent the design. I sincerely hope that this is not the case.

Q: When did you leave the ITF?

A: I had been with General Choi since 1960. He came to Vancouver in 1979 and General Choi and Grand Master J C Kim and I had discussions to go to South and North Korea to give tae Kwon Do demonstrations. We all agreed to do so but General Choi decided to go to North Korean only. I disagreed with General Choi’s decision to go to North Korea. I felt it was wrong at that time, as there was no dialogue or communication between the two Korea’s in the late 70’s early 80’s.

I parted from General Choi in 1981. Today however the climate is different and the two Governments are talking. Many of my fellow pioneering Masters felt the same as myself at that time and also left General Choi. General Choi lost most of his Senior Grand masters and Masters and was forced to re-organize with Junior Black Belt Instructors while saying that all Korean Instructors betrayed him, which was not true. In 1982/83 General Choi tried to contact me, but I was not ready to talk unless he could change his politics. Obviously, he did not. Prior to leaving General Choi, Master J.C. Kim and I were selected as ITF representatives to merge with the WTF. Both ITF and WTF representatives had three separate meetings in Vancouver, Canada and Seoul, Korea but we could not reach any agreement.

Q: How are you involved in TaeKwon-Do today?

A: I still train every day. I also regularly conduct seminars and promotional tests together with advice on how to run a successful Do Jang (school). Since General Choi’s death in 2002 I have been meeting with ITF’s Pioneering Grand Masters to find a way to unite the original Tae Kwon Do family under the leadership of the most senior Grand Master, Nam Tae Hi.

On August 16th 2005 in Vancouver, Canada we set up a committee to begin the formation of The Tae Kwon Do Pioneers Council with Grand Master J.C. Kim, Grand Master Cho Sang Min, Grand Master Lee Yoo Sun and myself Grand Master C.K. Choi. The objective of the Council is to help and support all Tae Kwon Do groups worldwide whenever they need assistance. The Council would like all the Grand Masters, Masters and Instructors to work together to support and unify the Tae Kwon Do family.

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to the various ITF groups what would it be?

A: I would like to see all ITF groups unite and put all of their differences to one side and work together to make the ITF stronger for the benefit of everyone concerned. I am willing to help any true Tae Kwon Do practitioners in the world. I am also currently writing the true history of Tae Kwon Do. If you have any historical information please feel free to contact me. e-mail address: itfchoi@shaw.ca

Thank you for giving such an interesting and informative interview Grandmaster Choi.

NOTE:

At the beginning of the interview General Woo Jong Lim is referred to as a Major. This was his military title at that time.

Philip Hawkins can be contact at http://www.taekwon-dohistory.com

Grand Master C.K. Choi

1956
Began training in Tae Kwon Do and Karate under Instructor [Army Captain] Hong Sung In and Instructor Kim.
1958
Trained under Master [Major] Woo Jong Lim, Director of Tae Kwon Do for the Korean 1st Army.
1961
Taught Tae Kwon Do at the largest Korean Army Training Center under Master [Lt. Colonel] Woo Jong Lim and General Choi Hong Hi and assisted Gen. Choi to create Gae-Baek Pattern.
1962
Won the First Korean Tae Kwon Do Championships in Sparring and Pattern in Won Ju City, Korea. This was the world’s first championship.
Selected Member of First Korean Army Representative Team.
1963
Won the First Korean Tae Soo Do [Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, Kong Soo Do] Full Contact Heavyweight Championship in 3rd, 4th,5th Degree Black Belt Division.
Won the Korean Tae Soo Do Representative Full Contact Heavyweight Championship.
1964
Was invited by Malaysia Tae Kwon Do Association to teach Tae Kwon Do and became the First Professional Tae Kwon Do Instructor recognized by Korean Government.
1966
International Tae Kwon Do Federation [I.T.F.] was formed and received # 5 Recognition Plaque.
1970
Opened First Tae Kwon Do School in Vancouver, Canada.
1973
Was member of I.T.F. Demonstration Team to tour the world In 1973, 1978, 1979, 1981.
Was Chairman of I.T.F. Umpire Committee.
1980
Designed the I.T.F. Uniform Tree Logo.
1981

Promoted to 8th Degree Black Belt by I.T.F.
Was one of two I.T.F. Representatives attempting to merge I.T.F. with W.T.F.
With deep regret, Master Choi dropped support for Gen. Choi because of his ties with North Korea. At this junction, South Korea was technically at war and had no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

1980’s
Created Sparring Patterns.
2002
Became 9th Degree Black Belt.
2007
Published his book The Korean Martial Art of Tae Kwon Do and Early History. Was inducted into the Tae Kwon Do Hall Of Fame in New York City.
2010 Revised the above noted book to include training guidelines, sparring patterns and a testing schedule.

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