One of the first books that I reviewed on this blog was A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis. To this day it remains one of my favorite discoveries and a revised and expanded edition has just been released. With a background in investigative journalism Gillis has produced one of the most engaging and fast-paced studies of a martial art to date. Nor do you have to be a student of TKD to enjoy this book. Luckily for us he recently had a chance to drop by KFT and answer some questions about his book, the current state of Tae Kwon Do, and the process of researching and writing martial arts history. Enjoy!
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Can you tell us a little bit about your original inspiration for investigating the history of Tae Kwon Do?
Alex Gillis (AG): I was training at a martial arts gym in Toronto when one of the instructors there began telling me about the “founder” of Taekwon-Do, Choi Hong-Hi, who supposedly lived in Toronto, about a plot to assassinate the South Korean president, and other crazy stories. I was a journalist, jumping around in this busy gym with my friends, focusing on trying to stay in shape, but I had to look into the rumours. That’s how I began investigating. I wrote a few magazine features about the real history of Tae Kwon Do, and those turned into a book. I guess the big inspiration initially was a search for the truth.
(KFT): Why did you decide that now was a good time to go back and revisit your research in A Killing Art?
(AG): The book was seven or eight years old and needed updates. I also wanted to be bolder in some sections, naming more people, providing more insights and revealing a few more things. Also, the old book contained a few sections with too much information and a few errors and confusions, (including a stupid math mistake and an error about a Korean geisha house!), so I updated and corrected everything. In addition, I wrote a few new sections and chapters.
(KFT): Can you tell us about you background as a writer and the sorts of methods you used when researching this volume?
(AG): I’m an investigative journalist, so, first, I used my skills to find information, diving into classified FBI and CIA documents for example. That was a lot of library and online work! Afterwards, armed with facts, I interviewed key people, many of whom lived in Toronto, Canada, where I live. Luckily, I lived in the right place at the right time: a lot of traditional TKD in the early years was developed in Canada, especially after the South Korean dictatorship stole the name in 1972 to create a national martial art and, later, Olympic TKD. However, my most important methods revolved around telling great stories, with everything backed up by many sources. I wanted a book that was readable, so that the history would be as exciting as the martial art. I wrote A Killing Art so that it reads like a thriller. With all the espionage and intrigue in the history, that wasn’t too hard. The book also had to be believable; it had to be 100 per cent nonfiction, in spite of the unbelievable-sounding stories. It’s heavily referenced.
(KFT): Given the number of years you have dedicated to researching and writing about TKD, what words of advice would you have for individuals setting out to write the history of other martial arts?
(AG): My main advice would be: (1) do your homework so that interviewees and readers respect your work; (2) ask the tough questions (as well as the fun ones); (3) corroborate everything that you hear and read, because even the masters lie, deceive or mis-remember the past; and (4) don’t be boring, don’t get bogged down in details and don’t show off; (5) try to tell a great story using scenes and dramatic anecdotes, something that captures the spirit of what you’ve researched.
(KFT): In your opinion, does someone need to practice, or have a background in a martial art, to write about it?
(AG): This is a tough question, but I’ll have to say yes if the writing is a regular job or hobby. If you don’t have the background, then you should know the material inside and out, but, even then, it would be challenging to avoid clichés and basic errors. If someone wants to regularly write about something, then they should try to practice it.
(KFT): Looking at that last question from a slightly different perspective, the general advice we give to journalists and writers of non-fiction is to “owe your sources nothing.” Is that really possible when writing about a community that you are part of? How have you tried to negotiate those challenges in your own work?
(AG): I see what you mean. “Owe your sources nothing” could mean that you shouldn’t bend to sources’ influence, biases and propaganda. However, journalists often owe their sources quite a bit: (a) the commitment to listen and be fair in reporting and interviewing, (b) the responsibility to get the facts right, (c) the integrity to spend the time and energy to figure out the truths in a situation, and (4) the courage to corroborate everything. And those four are off the top of my head. Because I was in the Tae Kwon Do community, I knew who to track down for interviews, and I knew what to ask, and I could detect lies and deception from a mile away. That was a huge advantage.
For example, when I interviewed General Choi Hong-Hi, I knew that he was media savvy and that he could bamboozle and intimidate journalists. To prepare, I brought a grandmaster instructor with me (someone he respected), and I prepared extensively, knowing I needed only the best stories and facts from him. During the interview, I could see when he was bullshitting me and asked follow-up questions. So, when he told me the same old story about attacking a wrestler during a poker game in 1938 – a story he’d told to thousands of people — I asked if he’d apologized to that man, because Choi’s attack had been violent and unjust. Choi didn’t answer. He looked away, as I describe in my book.
That gesture said a lot about him. His arrogant non-reply showed that he didn’t follow his own tenets regarding courtesy, self-control and all the rest of it. He’d had sixty years to work out that poker-attack dilemma and to make amends with the fellow, but in fact, Choi considered him inferior and not even worthy of consideration. As a journalist, I had to include that anecdote in my book, even though I was part of that TKD community. Many people who revere Choi as a cult figure of sorts still criticize me for daring to show the darker sides of his life and personality, but such things are important when you’re trying to understand key players in history.
(KFT): What has changed in the word of Tae Kwon Do (or the Korean martial arts more generally) over the last ten years or so?
(AG): A few interviewers have asked me this question, so I’ll provide an answer similar to what I told them: One change is that the international and national organizations are far more sophisticated in their business deals. The corruption is very sophisticated now, with little transparency, in spite of the rhetoric that everything is more transparent and fair. Some groups are still run like crime syndicates. Also, it seems as if there’s still a lot of cheating in Olympic TKD matches. The leaders promised to clean it up, and I’m wondering if frustrated athletes will continue to kick TKD officials in the head because of bad calls and cheating in national and international bouts. Last, many organizations, internationally and nationally, still function like pseudo cults. I’m not sure how anyone can get around the cultish worship of founders and pioneers or all the unnecessary bowing before instructors, except maybe by reading A Killing Art, punching a bag really hard and training like your life depends on it. The best instructors don’t need to be treated like gods and goddesses.
(KFT): What impact, if any, did the rapid growth of the Mixed Martial Arts have on the development of Taekwondo, both in Korea and here in North America?
(AG): Many MMA fighters practice various kinds of Tae Kwon Do, Karate and stand-up fighting arts that are derivatives. From the little I’ve seen, the training has made them better fighters, but few are willing to admit it, because TKD has a bad name. TKD is known as an ineffective martial art because the Olympic style dominates and looks ridiculous as a fighting art. For instance, not fighting with your hands is ludicrous. Also, TKD is so popular that McDojos have become the norm, so martial artists with integrity don’t want to be associated with TKD. You could say that our martial art has a problem with its brand. On the other hand, many TKD gyms are adding grappling or MMA components to their curriculum. I always get queasy when I see that, because the grappling looks lame – a lot of hugging and rolling around for some reason – but I haven’t visited the great gyms who have merged the various systems, so I shouldn’t critique this trend.
(KFT): What was the most surprising development that you came across as you researched the revision of A Killing Art?
(AG): Incredibly, I was still surprised by how sophisticated the cheating and corruption is in Olympic Tae Kwon Do. The brazenness of the leadership is impressive, and they’re so powerful that few people in TKD can say much.
(KFT): The summer Olympic Games are now here. Can you tell us a little bit about how Tae Kwon Do first came to be accepted as an Olympic sport and, in your view, how it has effected the development of the art?
(AG): Well, in 1980, South Korea’s newest dictator received good news: the International Olympic Committee officially recognized the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) as part of its network. Both the IOC and WTF were run like crime syndicates at the time, and a merger was beneficial to both: the dictatorship would receive recognition and a cover for its corruption and murder; in return, IOC members received huge sums of money from South Korea. That history still affects Olympic Tae Kwon Do to this day, with allegations of corruption spilling into matches between competitors.
Here’s an excerpt that answers part of your question. The section is from the start of chapter 13: “Olympic Mania and North Korean Mayhem”
On September 18, 1981, Korean Airlines Flight 901, scheduled to fly to Frankfurt, West Germany, sat for thirty minutes on the runway of Gimpo Airport in Seoul, South Korea, as the crew waited for an important, last-minute passenger, Park Chong-kyu, also known as “Pistol Park” because he carried a pistol everywhere he went. South Korea’s dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, had assigned him and his men to an important mission, Operation Thunderbird. Pistol Park was a martial artist who had helped organize South Korea’s military coup d’état in 1961, was lobbying to become a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and had steered secret- service agent Kim Un-yong to take over Tae Kwon Do in 1970. Now, Park and Kim were leading Operation Thunderbird, a mission to convince the most powerful people in international sports that South Korea should host the 1988 Summer Olympics and that Tae Kwon Do should be an Olympic sport in the process. Once again, sports, and Tae Kwon Do in particular, would hide human-rights atrocities and government-organized corruption in South Korea.
Wearing dark sunglasses, Park finally walked onto the plane. He and Kim had gathered a team of 107 elite Koreans from Tae Kwon Do, sports, business, government, and the secret service, including the Korean CIA’s deputy director. Flying from various countries, they were to meet in Baden-Baden, West Germany, for a crucial Olympic Congress, where the IOC would vote on which country would host the 1988 Games. Along the way, Operation Thunderbird would provide security against plots by Choi Hong-Hi and his North Korean friends. Choi had threatened to disrupt the Baden-Baden meeting, and his son was still plotting to assassinate the South Korean president.
Pistol Park and Kim had launched the top-secret Operation Thunderbird in June 1981, when South Korea had been in chaos. After the Kwangju Massacre, led by President Chun, the president had continued his predecessor’s policy of using martial artists to do some of the government’s dirty work, which consisted mainly of smashing unions. One-third of political prisoners were workers, and the rest of the workforce took turns going on strike and protesting. Martial arts experts and plainclothes police officers, called the White Skull (paekkol) strike-breakers, would pad themselves from head to foot and race on motorcycles to protests, where they would wade into crowds, breaking heads as they went.
The new regime concluded that the fastest and most effective way to diffuse conflict, unite Koreans, and improve the country’s image overseas was by hosting an Olympics. It was such a farfetched idea that few people inside or outside the tiny nation took it seriously, especially because Korea had no Olympic-sized facilities and, as Kim soberly acknowledged, did not even have colour television. But perhaps sports would redeem their nation and, in the process, cover up the massacres and corruption.
(KFT): Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing some of your thoughts on both the state of Tae Kwon Do and the writing of martial arts history. I cannot wait to take a look at this new edition of your book.
About our Guest: Alex Gillis is a journalist and martial artist in Toronto. He has trained in various styles of Tae Kwon Do and other martial arts for approximately 35 years. He first heard the incredible tales of the art from one of his instructors and entered the back rooms and high-stakes world of Choi Hong-Hi, Kim Un-yong, and other Tae Kwon Do leaders to find the truth about their art.