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Taekwondo Pioneers: Haeng Ung Lee

October 5, 2010 marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Haeng Ung Lee (1936-2000), founder of the American Taekwondo Association. In keeping with the Korean tradition of gije (annual memorial for deceased family members), we take time to remember an extraordinary man with extraordinary vision.

Lee grew up amid the hardships of the Japanese occupation of Korea and China. In the chaos of Korea after World War II, he began studying taekwondo to learn how to protect himself. At first he trained informally, but over time he was invited to train at a secondary school in Chung Do Kwan in Incheon. Since he had natural abilities and practiced constantly, he quickly earned the rank of black belt and began teaching.

In the mid-1950s, Lee did his military service in the South Korean army, attached to an intelligence unit based on the island of Baengnyeong. His main task was to be his unit’s martial arts trainer. After his discharge from the military, Lee eventually found himself in Osan, running a Chung Do Kwan Secondary School near Osan Air Base.

One of Lee’s first students was United States Air Force aviator Richard Reed. At first, Reed trained at the airbase under one of Lee’s assistants, but due to his ability and commitment, he was eventually brought to Lee’s school in Osan. Eventually, Reed became one of Lee’s first two non-Korean black belts. It was to Reed that Lee first unveiled his vision for martial arts education in the United States. Lee’s goal was not just to establish a single school, but to reach so many people with the martial arts that his students would spread throughout the country. Although he doubts whether Lee’s goal can be achieved or not, Reed agreed to help Lee emigrate to the United States and help him however he could.

Lee first came to the United States in 1962. Reed, still in the military, was stationed in Omaha, so Lee joined him there and began teaching at the small school Reed had established. . Lee was a charismatic and gifted instructor, and he quickly attracted an audience. However, he had only been able to obtain a visitor’s visa, and in 1963 he was forced to return to South Korea. After a protracted effort, including the intervention of one of the Nebraska senators, Lee obtained a resident alien visa in 1965.

After Lee settled in Omaha, he focused on growing his martial arts schools. He also started the Midwest Karate Federation (MKF), an umbrella organization for the growing number of martial arts schools his students were opening. Thanks to Lee’s hard work, the MKF grew rapidly and gained a reputation as one of the most organized martial arts groups in the country.

Lee’s success caught the attention of General Hong Hi Choi, president of the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). The general had established the ITF in 1966 and had worked tirelessly to create national affiliates outside Korea. He saw the MKF as a starting point for building a potential national governing body for taekwondo in the United States. In late 1968, the general met with Lee in Omaha, ostensibly to discuss the matter. What was decided exactly was never recorded. However, the general spent four days with Lee, teaching him the first 16 forms of Ch’ang Hon in the process.

A few months later, in 1969, the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) was formed as the original affiliate of the ITF in the United States. The MKF formed the nucleus of this new organization. Although he was considered the driving force behind the creation of the ATA, and therefore deserving of the title “Founder”, Lee was not allowed to be the first president of the ATA. It was for cultural reasons, mainly; in Korean culture, seniority is very important and the senior leads the organization. As a sixth degree in his thirties, Lee wasn’t even allowed to call himself “master” at the time (in the ITF, you had to and still must be a seventh degree to hold that title), and there were already several senior instructor ranks in the United States

The problem was resolved when Lee’s original instructor, Kang Suh Chong, was persuaded (most likely by Choi) to move to the United States. black belts, he had spent 14 years leading martial arts training in the South Korean military, and he was (at the time) a Choi loyalist. Due to these factors, it was felt that he would attract some of the most experienced Korean instructors to join the ATA. Kang moved to New York and was installed as president of the ATA. Lee was named vice president and head of instruction, with his school in Omaha serving as the ATA headquarters school.

Lee’s position meant that he essentially ran the day-to-day operations of the ATA. He has made it his personal task to not only develop the ATA, but to make it the standard for exceptional taekwondo training. Additionally, early financial difficulties in Omaha—by 1962, Lee’s monthly gross school income was about $160—had convinced Lee that a martial artist shouldn’t have to live in poverty to teach. full time. Therefore, with the help of Richard Reed, he set out to build a support structure that would allow martial artists to run full-time schools and earn a decent living. Innovations included business training for school owners, a printed instructor manual, and a standardized instructor certification system.

The 1970s were a difficult time for South Korea and for Korean martial arts in the United States. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the changing political landscape and the alliances and loyalties that were made and broken during this turbulent time. In 1978, the ATA seems to have broken with the ITF. Suh Chong Kang left the ATA to become vice-president of the ITF, taking with him a number of remaining seniors. Haeng Ung Lee assumed the position of chairman.

Around the time he assumed the presidency of the ATA, Lee sold his school in Omaha to one of his students and moved to Little Rock. When asked why he chose this particular city, Lee replied that the geography reminded him of where he grew up in Korea, but without the cold winters. He purchased a building on the south side of town which became what is today the original wing of the ATA headquarters.

In the 1980s, Lee’s innovations continued. For example, he created a computerized database of student records for all ATA members, one of the first automated records systems to include color belt students as well as black belts. The most important innovation, however, was the introduction of the new Songahm forms system. Lee had long felt that the Ch’ang Hon system of form patterns did not place enough emphasis on kicking in the lower belt forms and that there were too many complicated hand techniques. He also wanted shapes that could be paired with sparring and sparring combinations that used similar kicks; this would form a unified curriculum for each belt, which was not possible under the Ch’ang Hon system at the time.

By the late 1980s, Lee was eligible for promotion to ninth-degree black belt. Rather than simply assuming rank as so many other leaders of organizations had done, he wanted to demonstrate that he was worthy of the promotion and the Grandmaster title that came with it. There had been some controversy when he became president of the ATA, and he probably wanted to avoid the same difficulties with an elevation to grandmastery. So Lee outlined a nine-step process to becoming a grandmaster. The first of these steps was acceptance by ATA members; and an overwhelming percentage of ATA members signed the petition to promote him. Once the loyalty of the members was confirmed, Lee went through the remaining eight stages of the process and was acclaimed Grand Master in 1990.

For the next ten years, Lee chaired an ATA that experienced explosive growth. The number of active ATA schools grew from 200 in 1989 to over 1,000 in the year 2000. Additional innovations such as weapons training for black belts, an early childhood martial arts program and a series of Songahm forms books and DVDs were examples of the industry leading ATA with its innovations.

Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, Lee began to have health issues. He was eventually diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. For a time his health improved, but the cancer returned in March 2000. This time the prognosis was poor, so he began to put his affairs in order, including planning a transition to management of the ATA. On October 5, 2000, Lee lost his battle with cancer.

In June 2001, Lee was commemorated with a posthumous promotion to tenth degree black belt, with the title “Eternal Grand Master”. The promotional materials were signed by a number of legendary Korean martial artists, such as Jhoon Rhee and Bong Soo Han.

The legacy of this extraordinary man testifies to the taekwondo principles of perseverance and indomitable spirit. In the space of forty years, his vision for a multitude of schools in the United States has grown from a mere idea to the reality of the modern ATA. The politics of martial arts and post-war Korea and the fluctuations of the American economy did not prevent him from realizing this vision. In this, he was well served by his extraordinary charisma and humanity. He had the ability to make complete strangers feel like he had known them for years. Because of the great personal loyalty he had built with so many people, he was truly mourned on a deeply personal level by those he touched.

And so to honor the tenth anniversary of Haeng Ung Lee’s passing, we say, “Suseung-nim, khamsa hamnida.”

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