South Korean Chungwon Choue (L), head of World Taekwondo, and North Korean Ri Yong-son, ITF head, in Sokcho on Saturday. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
South Korean Chungwon Choue (L), head of World Taekwondo, and North Korean Ri Yong-son, ITF head, in Sokcho on Saturday. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Taekwondo demonstration teams from North and South Korea performed together today in the coastal city of Sokcho in South Korea’s northeast, on what has been a historic – indeed extraordinary – day for inter-Korean relations.

Earlier, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had lunched with Kim Yo-jong, the visiting sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and had presented him with a letter from her brother to meet in Pyongyang. Later in the day, Moon and Ms. Kim watched a match in Gangneung by the inter-Korean women’s hockey team – the first time the two Koreas have fielded a joint Olympic team in any sport.

The taekwondo demonstration took place in the coastal city of Sokcho, in Gangwon Province, where the Olympiad is taking place. Key figures present included South Korean Chungwon Choue, the president of the Seoul-headquartered World Taekwondo, and North Korean Ri Yong-son, president of the Vienna-headquartered International Taekwondo Federation. North Korea International Olympic Committee Member Ung Chang, also attended.

South Korean taekwondo is represented by the WT, which holds the sport’s Olympic mandate; North Korea is represented in the ITF.

The performance was held in front of a sell-out crowd of mainly South Koreans, and was attended by VIPs including Malaysian action movie star Michelle Yeoh and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“I am very much touched and excited by such an event for the North and South Korean people,” Ban told Asia Times. Referencing the Kim-Moon summit that had taken place earlier that day, Ban added, “I hope all these things happening will ultimately promote better understanding and reconciliation, to lead to peace.”

Both the North Korean and South Korean demonstration teams showcased roughly similar techniques – the high, spinning and flying kicks which are taekwondo’s forte; breaking – another taekwondo specialty – and self-defense. There, the similarities ended.

The South Koreans wore colored uniforms – red and black as well as the traditional white – and their performance took place to dramatic music, with no word of command. The North Koreans wore plain white, marched on to shouted commands and were introduced by a female MC – the team doctor.

The South Koreans blended their taekwondo with dance moves, gymnastic tricks and flips, and used a range of props not traditionally associated with unarmed taekwondo (“the way of fist and foot”): fans, long sticks, short sticks and banners. The North Koreans used only bare hands and fists.

The South Korean demo was fast-paced and funky, with an emphasis on skill and showmanship. The North Koreans were power-centric – their stamps shook the stage – and effective. The grand finale of the Northern performance, which drew both gasps and roars from the crowd, came when three of the male performers removed their tunics – revealing the kind of muscle-bound physiques not usually associated with North Koreans – and withstood two-by-fours being broken over their torsos.

Members of the North Korean International Taekwondo Federation have two-by-fours broken across their muscular backs. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The performance ended with a joint performance of poomsae – solo forms – and the stage littered with splintered wood. The crowd offered a standard ovation.

“The ITF is going the way of martial arts,” Ri, the North Korean taekwondo leader, told the Asia Times when asked about the differences between taekwondo, North and South. “The WT is the way of combat sports.”

Today was not the first time the two federations’ demonstrations teams have performed together – they did so at the WT World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2015 and in Muju, South Korea, in 2017. They also performed a short program just prior to Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony. (Henceforth, they will perform twice more, in Seoul, before the ITF athletes return to North Korea.)

These various developments were enabled by the signing of a protocol of accord by North Korean IOC Member Ung Chang and WT President Chungwon Choue on the sidelines of the Nanjing Youth Olympics in 2014. Now, with the political climate suddenly thawing so dramatically, a senior official hinted that the time is right for further reconciliatory moves.

“After this, I think we should move forward – maybe in Pyongyang, next time?” Ri said – but asked when that might occur, laughed and replied, “If we disclose everything, it’s not secret!”

Future moves may go beyond exchanging demonstrations; there may come a time when fighters from North and South actually compete against one another.

Ri disclosed that he had been in talks with WT Technical Committee Chairman Yang Jin-bang, a renowned South Korean taekwondo master, earlier in the day. Currently, the two federations use very different rules. The ITF allows faces punches; WT does not. WT uses electronic body and head protectors; the ITF does not. However, WT has one thing that the ITF may seek: It is WT, not the ITF, which administers Olympic taekwondo.

“The next step is for us to send technical delegates to their training camps, to start sharing information on rules and regulations,” said WT Secretary General Hoss Rafaty, an American. “That can be the beginning of their integration into Olympic taekwondo.”

Rafaty is a close associate of George Vitale, a New York-based ITF master who has been a behind-the-scenes broker bringing the two federations closer in recent years. “The taekwondo world has been so fragmented; it is not easy to get warring factions to lay down their arms!” said Vitale. “That is why we have to proceed with caution, step by step, and build.”

Vitale credits Choue and Chang with the reconciliation process. “They have started to undo decades of rivalries,” he said. But he admits that he has been an information conduit, with phone and email access to both sides: An unusual role for an American to play between the estranged Koreas.

And Ri, the North Korean taekwondo leader, insists that sport truly breaks barriers. “According to politics, we should hate each other,” he said gesturing at the American, Vitale. “But we are best friends – because of taekwondo!”