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A Killing Art: The Untold Story of Tae Kwon Do

by Alex Gillis

In the world of martial arts, tae kwon do is often derided for having more bark than bite – due to its clubs’ high membership fees, the sport has earned the unfortunate epithet “take my dough.” Who would have thought that this high-kicking discipline beloved by suburban housewives and hyperactive eight-year-olds can boast of bar-brawl origins and a frighteningly violent history? In A Killing Art, Alex Gillis traces the sport’s unlikely and decidedly nefarious development.
    Far from being ancient, tae kwon do was created in the 1940s by a larger-than-life character named Choi Hong-Hi. The book primarily follows Choi’s life: through childhood in rural Korea, schooling in Japan (where he trained in karate and tested new techniques on racist bullies), and imprisonment during the Second World War, to military power (teaching his new martial art to anti-communist forces in Vietnam) and political connections (including lucrative deals signed at Seoul’s geisha houses). But the nascent art escaped Choi’s control, becoming a tool of Korean autocrats – both in the North and South – seeking to foment nationalist fervour. Choi immigrated to Canada and watched as his creation became, in one incarnation, a tool of Korea’s ruthless intelligence services and, in another, a declawed, mass-marketed sport that, through underhanded means, found its way into the Olympic Games.
    Gillis, himself a tae kwon do black belt, succeeds in debunking the sport’s mythology, but inadvertently perpetuates the myths of the art itself. When he writes about corruption and backroom dealings, his voice is compelling and the depth of his research astounding. When he retells with apparent credulity anecdotes of martial artists eviscerating opponents with their bare hands, though, he simply comes across as naïve.
    Not that this should deter readers. A Killing Art is fascinating, fast-paced, and reads more like a spy novel than a history. Beyond that, it evokes a certain voyeuristic pleasure that comes with unearthing the sordid past of something seemingly harmless.