This book tells the story of taekwondo’s history from a perspective unlike any other. Rather than primarily focusing on the art’s origins in Okinawan and Japanese karate, or the influence of the ancient Korean sport of taekyon on its modern kicking techniques, it gets deeply into the drama and grit of what is the world’s most politicized martial art. Author Alex Gillis, a university writing instructor, investigative journalist, and long-time practitioner of taekwondo, who has trained with some the art’s pioneers and leaders, tells this story with depth, flair and passion.
Much of A Killing Art is dedicated to the story of General Choi Hong-hi, a person who, with the help of a few elite politicians, created the name “tae kwon do” in 1954, motivated in part by the insistence of Syngman Rhee, at that time the President of the Republic of Korea. It follows the work and political struggles of Choi, who devoted his life to creating a uniquely Korean art from Japanese karate. Although it was one of Choi’s goals to technically and philosophically distance his art from Japanese karate, he would spend the majority of his life in severe conflict with other Korean taekwondo proponents, whose goals were similar, except that they also would also make it an international sport.
Much of the book also discusses the role of the South Korean military-run government to adapt the art and sport of taekwondo for geopolitical purposes. A lot of coverage is given to Kim Un-yong, a powerful figure in South Korean politics, who was given the task, the authority and the power by President and General Park Chung-hi to make taekwondo a sport and to forcefully unite the many schools of Korean karate. Kim, a person with a background in the Korean CIA and the Presidential Protection Force, who would soon become the President of the Korean Taekwondo Association, the Kukkiwon (the headquarters of the World Taekwondo Federation), the World Taekwondo Federation and the Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee, would surpass his original task, eventually bringing taekwondo to the Olympics. Gillis covers this entire process in meticulous detail, including a large web of Cold War politics, corruption, vice, bribery and even assassinations in the 1970s and 1980s.
A Killing Art is an extraordinary book by a passionate and qualified taekwondo insider and a must-read for all martial arts aficionados.