A taekwondo fighter from North Korea puts the boot in during a demonstration at the opening ceremony of the WT World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, June 2017. Photo: World Taekwondo

Taekwondo is taught to the militaries massed on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, and trained fighters can shatter concrete with their fists, but officials of the sport’s governing body in Seoul insist that taekwondo can provide a path to inter-Korean reconciliation at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

At inter-Korean talks on Tuesday, North Korean negotiators offered to send a “high-level delegation” to the Games, including athletes, a cheering squad, performance artists – and a taekwondo team.

A North Korean taekwondo master reduces concrete slabs to powder during a demonstration at the WT World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, in June 2017. Photo: World Taekwondo

Although North Korean fighters are represented by the Vienna-based International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), and South Korean athletes fall under Seoul-based World Taekwondo (WT), Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed by the head of the latter organization.

“‘Peace is more precious than triumph,’ is our motto,” said WT president Chungwon Choue, a South Korean. “Even though taekwondo is a combat sport, if you read the ‘Taekwondo Tenets,’ it is about respect; about building a more peaceful world; about social inclusion.”

Taekwondo fighters from North and South are expected to come eyeball-to-eyeball in Pyeongchang in February. But when they do, they will be demonstrating – not fighting.

‘Even though taekwondo is a combat sport, if you read the “Taekwondo Tenets,” it is about respect; about building a more peaceful world; about social inclusion’

“They will be working together, shoulder-to-shoulder: There is not going to be one against the other!”  WT secretary general Hoss Rafaty, an American, clarified. “They will display their talents and skills together.”

Moves are already under way to bring the North Koreans south. “Negotiations between North and South Korea are ongoing as regards the logistics of how, when and where to make the demonstration, and how to create a joint demonstration,” Rafaty said, without giving details.

If, as expected, North and South Korean taekwondo players unite in Pyeongchang, it will not be the first time they have performed together.

Taekwondo athletes from North and South Korea pose together with an appropriate banner at the conclusion of their joint demonstration at the WT World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, in June 2017.
Photo: World Taekwondo

Under the eye of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, the heads of the ITF and WT signed a protocol of accord on the sidelines of the Nanjing Youth Olympics in 2014. Under the protocol, they agreed to communicate and cooperate.

The protocol bore fruit at the 2015 WT World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, when ITF and WT demonstration teams performed one after the other, an occasion that Rafaty called “historic.” The spectacle of North and South Korean players spinning, kicking and punching on the same mats – without spilling blood – moved one senior ITF official to tears.

And at the opening ceremony of the 2017 WT World Championships in Muju, South Korea, President Moon Jae-in was in the audience that watched demonstration teams from North and South repeat their joint performance. Subsequently, officials from both sides mingled together amicably over the week of the championships.

After that, WT expected to be invited to the ITF’s World Championships in North Korea, but the opportunity did not eventuate. “There was a short period between our championships in Muju in June, and their championships in Pyongyang in September, and we would not work out the details of the logistics,” Rafaty said.

Thus far, North and South Korean taekwondo fighters have not met in combat at international championships; while both federations govern taekwondo, their rules, techniques and practices have diverged over the years.

ITF stylists wear boxing-style gloves and punch to the head. WT stylists only punch to the torso, and wear electronic body armor and head guards that register hits. WT-style taekwondo is contested at the Summer Olympics; ITF-style is not. But both federations’ athletes specialize in taekwondo’s trademark skillset: Its athletically challenging armory of high, spinning and jumping kicks.

So could North Korean athletes one day compete against South Koreans at the Summer Olympics? Rafaty is guarded, but noted that ITF-trained athletes can, indeed, compete at the Games as long as they follow WT rules and regulations, and qualify through official Olympic selection processes.

Still: While “ping-pong diplomacy” worked to forge sustainable ties between China and the United States, the two Koreas’ extensive experiments with sports diplomacy – which includes joint table-tennis and youth soccer teams, and joint team march-ons at both Summer and Winter Olympics – have so far failed to calm the turbulent relations between the competing states.

A South Korean taekwondo athletes takes to the air during a demonstration at the opening ceremony of the WT World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, June 2017. Photo: World Taekwondo

Even so, the symbolic value of fighters from the divided peninsula cooperating to showcase their national sport at the Winter Olympiad should not be underestimated, Rafaty insisted.

“This is happening in Korea, and taekwondo is the national pride and national sport of the Korean people,” the WT secretary general said. “What better display of diplomacy can there be as they host the world?”

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