- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

PYONGYANG, North Korea — With a smile and strong hands, Korean-American tae kwon do grandmaster Woo Jin Jung shatters pine boards in hopes of breaking another solid barrier: the 53 years of division between North and South on the Korean Peninsula.

No one is immune to his charm.

In this normally tightly regimented city, Mr. Jung even persuaded the prim North Korean announcer, wearing a bright green hanbok dress, to chop a board in two for the crowd watching his demonstration. “Female or male, old people and young, black or white, it doesn’t matter: We’re just all wishing for unification,” Mr. Jung, 64, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told the audience.

Just as the United States and China drew closer together through “pingpong diplomacy” in the 1970s, Mr. Jung and his delegation of martial arts practitioners hope their “tae kwon do diplomacy” can help resolve the equally intransigent stalemate of divided Korea.

“Pingpong helped the U.S.A. and China have a relationship. Tae kwon do will do the same to reconcile North and South,” said Jun Lee, 45, another Korean-American tae kwon do grandmaster, who traveled to North Korea from Raleigh, N.C.

Tae kwon do itself has fallen victim to the hostility between the communist North and capitalist South. Rival factions in the two Koreas pledge allegiance to different sports bodies that disagree about the origins of the martial art.

40th anniversary trip

Mr. Jung’s trip to the North was part of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the International Taekwon-Do Federation, also called the ITF, which was founded in Seoul in 1966 by South Korean Gen. Choi Hong-hi.

Gen. Choi’s differences with South Korea’s military regime caused him to emigrate to Canada. In 1980, he brought the sport to North Korea on behalf of the ITF. After his death in 2002, Gen. Choi was buried in a North Korean cemetery for national heroes.

South Korea founded a new tae kwon do association in 1973 — the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) — now recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the sport’s official body.

Tae kwon do coalesced centuries of Korean martial arts into a system in the mid-20th century. The ITF insists it was Gen. Choi who gave the sport its name, but the WTF says the origin is not clear.

Over the years, ITF adherents were branded as pro-communists and spies. Some who followed Gen. Choi’s teachings were forced to leave South Korea.

But in Pyongyang last month, talk of the rival sports bodies fell by the wayside as the visitors used their fists and feet to break down prejudices and bring people together.

Cries for unification

With cries of “tongil” (unification), the black belts broke boards at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), tourist sites and before a crowd of about 2,400 during the May 18 celebration in Pyongyang.

The North Korean tae kwon do demonstration team drew hearty laughter and cheers from the initially reserved crowd by performing a series of skits, in which female black belts used acrobatic kicks and punches to repel men acting as attackers. One male athlete performed a leaping kick over a three-tier human pyramid to split a board and still land on his feet.

Others broke boards, bricks and tiles with bare hands and feet, sending dust and debris flying to the amazement of the audience.

The international delegation said it had asked the South Korea-based WTF to join the event, but WTF Secretary-General Moon Dong-hoo said his group hadn’t received any official invitation.

At the urging of the IOC, the WTF has held several meetings with the North Korean ITF representatives about unifying the sport, but no concrete agreements have been reached.

The ITF opened an office in South Korea in December, and about 27 delegates from there also traveled to North Korea to join the celebration.

Voice of the children

“It’s very sad because tae kwon do is divided in the two countries, but we do have hope to reunify — which will help to eventually reunify Korea,” said Hwang Pong-yong, president of the (North) Korean Martial Arts Federation.

Mr. Jung, who runs 45 martial arts schools and eight fitness centers in the United States, was born in 1942 to a farming family in Ulsan, now on the southern side of the DMZ.

He started learning martial arts because he was bullied at school. Becoming a black belt in just 14 months, his tae kwon do skills helped him stand out during his military service, where a stint on patrol at the DMZ convinced him of the need to work toward Korea’s reunification.

Mr. Jung emigrated to the United States in 1971 and opened his first tae kwon do academy in 1973. Over the years, he has trained about 4,300 black belts, and publishes a magazine, Tae Kwon Do Times. He has visited North Korea eight times since 1992 as part of his reconciliation efforts.

“I’m not South or North; I’m Korean,” he said.

During a visit to the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, the youths put on a music and acrobatics extravaganza with a grand finale in front of a backdrop picturing the entire Korean Peninsula and all the performers singing “We are one.”

“The children are saying ‘unification.’ What are we doing?” Mr. Jung asked.

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