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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 …