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Taekwondo Pioneers: Haeng Ung Lee

Taekwondo Pioneers: Haeng Ung Lee

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

Lee grew up amid the hardships of the Japanese occupation of Korea and China. In the chaos of post-World War II Korea, he began studying taekwondo to learn self-protection. At first he trained informally, but in time he was invited to train at a Chung Do Kwan branch school in Incheon. Since he had natural ability and trained constantly, he quickly earned black belt rank and began teaching.

In the mid-1950s, Lee spent his national service in the South Korean army, attached to an intelligence unit based on Baengnyeong Island. His primary duty was as the martial arts trainer for his unit. After his discharge from the army, Lee eventually wound up in Osan, leading a Chung Do Kwan branch school near Osan Air Base.

One of Lee’s early students was U. S. Air Force airman Richard Reed. At first, Reed trained on the air base under one of Lee’s assistants, but because of his ability and commitment 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 unfolded his vision of teaching martial arts in the United States. Lee’s goal was not simply to establish a single school, but to touch so many people with martial arts that his students would spread over the entire country. Although he was dubious about whether or not Lee’s goal could be achieved, Reed agreed to help Lee emigrate to the U.S. and to assist him however he could.

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

After Lee settled in Omaha, he concentrated 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. Due to Lee’s hard work, the MKF grew rapidly, and developed a reputation for being one of the best-organized martial arts groups in the country.

Lee’s success attracted the attention of General Hong Hi Choi, President of the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF). The General had established the ITF in 1966 and had been working tirelessly to build national affiliates outside Korea. He saw the MKF as a starting point from which to build a potential national governing body for taekwondo in the U.S. In late 1968, the General met with Lee in Omaha, ostensibly to discuss the issue. What exactly was decided was never recorded. However, the General did spend four days with Lee, teaching him the first 16 of the Ch’ang Hon forms in the process.

A few months later, in 1969, the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) was formed as the original ITF affiliate in the U.S. The MKF formed the nucleus of this new organization. Although he was considered the driving force behind the establishment of the ATA, and therefore deserving of the title “founder,” Lee was not permitted to be the first president of the ATA. This was for cultural reasons, mostly; in Korean culture, seniority is very important, and the senior runs the organization. As a sixth degree in his 30s, Lee was not even entitled to call himself “master” at the time (in the ITF, you needed and still need to be a seventh degree to carry that title), and there already several higher-ranking instructors in the U. S.

The problem was solved when Lee’s original instructor, Kang Suh Chong, was persuaded (most likely by Choi) to relocate to the U. S. Kang was a senior eight degree with a significant resume: he had martial arts seniority as one of the first Chung Do Kwan black belts, he had spent 14 years running martial arts training in the South Korean military, and he was (at the time) a Choi loyalist. Because of these factors, it was felt he would attract some of the more senior Korean instructors to join the ATA. Kang settled in New York City and was installed as ATA president. Lee was named Vice President and Chief of Instruction, with his Omaha school serving as the ATA’s headquarters school.

Lee’s position meant he essentially ran the ATA’s day to day operations. He made it his personal task not just to grow the ATA, but to make it the standard for outstanding taekwondo training. Also, the financial hardships of the early days in Omaha — in 1962, Lee’s school’s monthly gross was about $160 — had convinced Lee that a martial artist should not have to live in poverty to teach full time. Therefore, with the assistance of Richard Reed, he set about building a support structure that would allow martial artists to run schools full time and make a decent living. Among the innovations were 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 U. S. It is out of the scope of this article to discuss the shifting political landscape and the alliances and loyalties that were established and broken during that turbulent time. By 1978, the ATA appears to have broken with the ITF. Suh Chong Kang left the ATA to become ITF Vice President, taking a number of the remaining seniors with him. Haeng Ung Lee assumed the office of president.

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

In the 1980s, Lee’s innovations continued. For example, he established a computerized database containing the student records of all ATA members, which one of the first automated records systems to include color belt students as well as black belts. The most significant innovation, however, was the establishment of the new Songahm form system. Lee had long felt the Ch’ang Hon system of form patterns did not sufficiently emphasize kicking in the lower belt forms, and that there were too many complicated hand techniques. He also wanted forms that could be matched with step sparring and sparring combinations that used similar kicks; this would form a unified curriculum for each belt, something 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 the rank as so many other organization leaders had done, he wanted to demonstrate that he was worthy of the promotion and the grand master title that came with it. There had been some controversy when he became ATA president, and he likely wanted to avoid the same difficulties with an elevation to the grand mastership. So Lee outlined a nine step process to become grand master. The first of these steps was acceptance by the ATA membership; and overwhelming percentage of ATA members signed the petition to grant him promotion. With the membership’s loyalty confirmed, Lee completed the remaining eight steps in the process, and was acclaimed Grand Master in 1990.

For the next ten years, Lee presided over an ATA that was experiencing explosive growth. The number of active ATA schools grew from the 200s in 1989 to over 1,000 by the year 2000. Such additional innovations as weapons training for black belts, an early childhood martial arts program, and a book and DVD series on the Songahm forms were examples of the ATA leading the industry with its innovations.

Unfortunately, by the late 1990s Lee began to experience health problems. 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 set his affairs in order, including planning for a transition in ATA leadership. On October 5, 2000, Lee lost his battle with cancer.

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

The legacy of this extraordinary man is a testament to the taekwondo tenets of perseverance and indomitable spirit. In the space of forty years, his vision of a multitude of schools in the U. S. grew from a mere idea to the reality of the modern ATA. The politics of martial arts and post-war Korea and fluctuations in the U. S. economy did not prevent him from bringing that vision to reality. In this, he was well served by his extraordinary charisma and humanity. He had the ability to make complete strangers feel as though he had known them for years. Because of the great personal loyalty he had built with so many, he was genuinely mourned on a deeply personal level by those he had touched.

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