Things (and few Links) Korea, in times before, and after, the light

No squids, or parasites. Butt-kicking for goodness, from an imaginary country.

The proverbial light being internet, and in the meantime, adulthood. Martial Arts gyms were a bit of a curiosity here in Greece, when I started training in Tae Kwon Do as a teen (c. 1995). Sparse, definitely not next to each and every school, with a wild array of possible outcomes, ranging from genuine fighting skills to pure edgelord bs. No accessible standard for the “average services consumer” (apart from 70s/ 80s movies and some illustrated paper magazines – which were mostly promotional). So I joined the gym, whose owner and chief instructor was my uncle’s friend. The man was well versed in TKD and a few other styles. He did his own thing, a TKD base, sprinkled with Kick Boxing/ Muay Thai and some elementary grappling. I fell for it.

Experience is one thing. Getting the full picture can be another. Back then I learned that TKD is indeed Korean (hard to miss the fact, as there was also a South Korean flag on the wall, to which we observed respect), maybe or maybe not its national sport, not much more. As I quit four years later, in order to prepare for the nationally held university admissions tests (a Greek, but also a Korean, thing, more on this later), I left my black tipped red belt, and my relationship with this sketchy distant land, there. Twenty years later, I enrolled to another gym, and revisited the “martial arts” section, this time also thru the power of the net and the wisdom of my years (yeah!). What I saw was…interesting. Note: The martial arts content is generally sub-par, in my view. Too little good writing, too much sectarianism.

The TKD we trained in was of the International TKD Federation (ITF) kind, one of the two main branches in an art that has also many smaller organizations. TKD is not ancient, it only got assembled and standardized in mid-20th century, as South Korea built its national identity away from Japanese influence. The predefined sets of moves (Katas in Karate), called tuls (ok that I already knew), have names I consistently misheard. And then there were the critiques. Oh my. Post after post slamming TKD, its usefulness, its application, its training methods. This cancellation is already dated, it started like in early 00s and closed its circle in early 10s, but obviously I had not gotten the memo, and it pinched me more than it should.

I agree with the first line of criticizing. The spread of gyms, next to each and every elementary school (a sound decision business-wise), brought some softening of the art (for reference, in our gym the floor was covered with that rough, gray, rippled mat that you usually see in an office lobby, perfect for skinning bare feet. We got colored soft mats two years later). The second line is also credible. The early 90s saw a revolution in martial arts, with the advent of Mixed Martial Arts (another sound business decision, btw). The rise of the so-called “pressure tested” styles brought salience and “weights-n-measures” to a world rich in claims, but often poor in evidence. Nothing really novel, though. The underlying force is, of course, competition, which should be familiar to anyone taking interest in social systems and relations. With the renewal also came the blanket thrashing of traditional styles, deserved or not.

Coming to assess my TKD training, I get to see the holes in it, notably the low amount of free sparring and the “choreography” of self-defense scenarios. However, the athleticism was real, as was the fixation to perfect form (either in performing a basic punch or a complicated tul). And the sweat. Also, I lucky stroke with the gym selection, since the master had, as I understand now, introduced the then new, mixed normal in martial arts training. Another positive sign was that the gym competed in kick boxing/ Muay Thai tournaments (the older students, not we teens). So, bruised and battered, but not cancelled in toto.

Understanding Korea’s Unique Situation: Routledge’s New Handbook of Contemporary South Korea (LA Review of Books, from the same guy Brandon complimented, back-handedly, here)

That university admission is the only way forward for young Koreans and Greeks alike surprised me, somewhat. But taking into account that both countries entered the post-war landscape relatively late (the Greek civil war ended in 1949, the Korean war lasted until 1953), ravaged, poor and reliant on external aid, the differences get ironed out. Lacking a large enough private sector to offer vocational training and career opportunities, a university degree seems appealing enough as an investment to future. South Korea did its homework more consistently, however, and its top universities are ranked in the tens or fist hundreds of the world’s finest, while the Greek ones are way lower. It also became an export powerhouse and a “middle power” in world politics, through authoritatively introduced liberal economics reforms:

From hermit kingdom to miracle on the Han (Peterson Institute for International Economics)

My second martial art, Hapkido, is Korean, too. It was also developed in mid to later 20th century and has a complex, fascinating history. It even played a – shady – role during Park‘s presidency. It is a solid art, but even more organizationally fractured than TKD or others. Unfortunately, I only trained for six months, as covid-19 (and life) blew me away. There is always some catch-up to do, it seems.