Understanding Kukkiwon, WTF and ITF

Many Taekwondo students and Masters often use incorrect or misleading terminology, such as comparisons between the WTF and ITF. There seems to be a lot of confusion, and misinformation. Without going too deep into the history, I would like to explain where these organizations came from, and what their functions are.

In 1944, near the end of World War II, one Korean was given permission by the occupying Japanese government to open the first Martial Art school run by a Korean since the time Korea was occupied in 1905, and annexed in 1910. Won-Kuk Lee had an early influence of native Korean Tae Kkyeon 태껸 (kicking method), and studied Shotokan Karate-Do in Japan from its founder, Gitchen Funakoshi, becoming the highest ranked student at 3rd Degree Black Belt. He combined this with his studies of Chinese hand fighting from the T’ang Dynasty, and coined the term “Tangsudo” 당수도 (way of the T’ang hand) to describe his unique system. He called his school “Chung Do Kwan” 청도관 (school of the Blue Wave). After WWII ended, the Chung Do Kwan relocated, and became the largest civilian Kwan (school under one leader).

Another student of Funakoshi was Hong-Hi Choi, who, following WWII, was a student at the Chung Do Kwan, and joined the newly formed ROK Army. He quickly rose through the ranks to eventually become a Major General. He developed his own curriculum for teaching Martial Art, using his penname of Chang Heon 창헌 (aka: Chang Hon – “Blue Cottage”). Since Korean Martial Art systems had never previously used the practice of forms training, this concept was borrowed from the Japanese Karate. However, the Korean Kwans were focusing on Kicking as a primary weapon, and the Karate Kata did not compliment this, so Choi modified them, adding kicks and giving each form a name, and meaning to incorporate the formerly suppressed Korean history. General Choi called the forms practice “Teul” 틀 (also written as “Tul”).

By 1950, around 18 Kwans had sprung up in, and around Seoul Korea (in a time prior to the permanent division of North and South Korea). This development was interrupted by the Korean War (50-53). In the years following the Korean War, more than 30 Kwans had been opened teaching a variety of systems under many different names. There was a push among the major Kwans to unite under one name, but since no one could agree on which name to use, there was a meeting held on April 11, 1955 to vote on suggestions. General Choi, and another student of the Chung Do Kwan had done some research on terminology, and came up with the words “Tae Kwon” 태권 (foot hand), since it expressed the use of kicking, and was similar to the ancient Korean Tae Kkyeon. The term Taekwondo (태권도) was officially selected, although there ensued much debate and discourse over the term for more than a decade.

However, in 1961, the KTA (Korea Taekwondo Association) was formed in Seoul, South Korea, and many of the larger Kwans united under this title. General Choi was elected as the first President of the KTA, but was sent as an ambassador to Malaysia. During that time, the name was still debated, and temporarily changed to Taesudo under the second President, but later changed back to Taekwondo when Choi returned, and was named the third President. General Choi taught his Chang Hon curriculum in the military as his own system that he named Oh Do Kwan (School of My Way). However, General Choi had a very authoritarian approach, and wanted to enforce his “Chang Hon” Oh Do Kwan curriculum in the KTA, which was not accepted. It was suggested by the other Kwan leaders that Choi step down as president of the KTA, and start his own organization. He subsequently resigned and on March 22, 1966, he created the ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) in Seoul, South Korea. Taekwondo had already begun to spread around the globe through soldiers returning from Korea, demonstrations to foreign military, and a handful of Korean Masters who had moved abroad to teach. General Choi organized many of them in the ITF, and provided a connection to foreigners to gain Dan certification in Taekwondo.

However, the KTA was still the official governing body, and continued to assert control over the way the ITF was run, to which General Choi objected. After much tension, and political unrest in the government, General Choi moved to Canada where he established his new ITF headquarters. The ITF continued to teach General Choi’s Chang Hon system, where students could join as white belts, and be promoted to Black Belt, and through the Black Belt Degrees. This essentially became General Choi’s International Kwan, which was then independent of Korea, and the authority of the KTA.

The Korean government continued to promote Taekwondo as the national Martial Art of Korea, and sought to use its popularity in sports to gain access to the Olympic Games, which would boost Korea’s economy, and image worldwide. To this end, Korea began development of the Kukkiwon (National Academy) under the leadership, and efforts of Dr. Un-Yong Kim. The Kukkiwon was complete in November of 1972, and named in February of 1973. The IOC (International Olympic Committee), of which Dr. Kim was Vice-President, would need an International Governing body for the sport, in order to consider including Taekwondo in the Summer Games. On May 28, 1973, the WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) was established at the Kukkiwon by 35 participating representatives, following the first World Taekwondo Championships. General Choi had originally stated that he wanted Taekwondo in the Olympics, and that is one reason he chose to move to Canada, since the 1976 games were being hosted in Montreal. After the IOC gave the nod to the WTF as the International Federation (I.F.) governing the sport of Taekwondo, General Choi began to criticize Taekwondo’s involvement in the Olympics.

Many organizations have been created, and established around the world for the purpose of teaching various versions of Korean Taekwondo. Each of them allow membership of students, instructors, and schools, and provide for the education of Taekwondo as a Martial Art, and promotion of rank from white belt, through the highest level of Black Belt. They also teach sparring for training purposes, as well as tournament competition. Each organization, association, union, or federation decides upon their own choice of rules for competition, and instructors train their athletes accordingly.

All of these organizations can be compared and contrasted to one another, but the WTF is not anywhere near the same kind of entity. The WTF does not permit membership of individuals or schools. The WTF does not have its own “style” of Taekwondo, and there is no WTF curriculum that is taught anywhere in the world. Also, the WTF has nothing to do with color belt grading or criteria for promotions, and they do not certify Black Belt ranks.

The Kukkiwon in Seoul, South Korea sets the official curriculum for those who wish to become Kukkiwon certified instructors, or registered as Kukkiwon Poom (Jr. Black Belt under 15) or Dan rank (15 and older). One main difference is that the original Karate Kata were replaced with a system of forms training called Poomsae to fit better with the techniques and tactics of Korean Taekwondo. The first set of official forms (other than Choi’s Chang Heon Teul) were called Palgwae (often misspelled “Palgwe” or Palgae). Many Taekwondo schools around the world had previously been using a version of Karate Kata (Pinan), or General Choi’s teul (Chang Hon system of forms), and either supplemented with the Palgwae, or switched entirely to Palgwae. In the U.S. the American Taekwondo Association was an independent group run by Grandmaster Haeng-Ung Lee (co-founded with Great-Grandmaster Suh-Chong Kang as the first ATA President). The ATA discarded using General Choi’s Tul in the early 80’s, and H.U. Lee created his own Song Ahm Poomsae. The Kukkiwon had assembled a panel that created the Taegeuk Poomsae which are also the current official forms of the WTF for competition.

Those who wish to compete in the Olympics, or any other WTF recognized event, regardless of what organization you train with or are members of, merely need to also register with the WTF recognized member National Association in your country. This does not mean you are changing organizations, or being trained by the WTF, or even promoted in rank by the WTF (which they don’t do). It simply registers your school, and the athletes as competitors who are trained in the rules and regulations of WTF competitions. If you compete in WTF recognized tournaments, the only forms used are Taegeuk. If you are not competing in forms, then you simply spar in whatever manner you feel would win under the WTF set of rules. The main difference there is that they do not currently permit hand strikes to the face (although that might change), and the point system is sometimes different.

I just wanted to try and clear up the confusion, and help people to avoid incorrectly stating that you train at a “WTF school” (no such thing), or teach “WTF style of Taekwondo” (does not exist), or that someone has a 1st Degree WTF Black Belt or higher (WTF does not certify ranks). The Kukkiwon has the Kukki Taekwondo curriculum and conducts international courses for instructor certification, and holds promotion tests in Poom and Dan ranks. Those instructors who are 4th Dan Kukkiwon or higher have the authority to submit Dan applications for their students. Depending on your Kwan connections, this might be done through your Grandmaster directly to the Kukkiwon, or through the National Governing Body recognized by the Kukkiwon in your country.

by Chief Master Darwin J. Eisenhart –

Taekwondo 7th Dan with the United States Chung Do Kwan Association