Choi Hong Hi (9 November 1918 – 15 June 2002), also known as General Choi, was a South Korean army general and martial artist who is a controversial figure in the history of the Korean martial art of taekwondo. Choi is widely regarded as the ‘Founder of Taekwondo’—most often by International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) organizations. Others, such as World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) organizations, portray Choi as either an unimportant or a dishonorable figure in taekwondo history, whether by omitting him from their versions of taekwondo history or through explicit statements.
Choi was born on 9 November 1918 in Hwa Dae, Myŏngch’ŏn county, in what is now North Korea, which was then under Japanese rule. Choi’s father sent him to study calligraphy under Han Il Dong, who was also “a master of Taek Kyon, the ancient Korean art of foot fighting” (Park, 1993, p. 241). Choi travelled to Japan, where he studied English, mathematics, and karate. In Kyoto, he met a fellow Korean with the surname Kim, who was a karate instructor and taught Choi this martial art. Choi also learned Shotokan karate under Funakoshi Gichin. Just before he had left Korea, Choi apparently had a disagreement with a wrestler named Hu, and the possibility of a future confrontation inspired him to train; in his own words, “I would imagine that these were the techniques I would use to defend myself against the wrestler, Mr. Hu, if he did attempt to carry out his promise to tear me limb from limb when I eventually returned to Korea” (Park, 1993, p. 242). Choi attained the rank of 1st dan in karate in 1939, and then 2nd dan soon after.
Choi had been forced to serve in the Japanese army during World War II, but was implicated in a rebellion and imprisoned, during which time he continued practicing martial arts. Following the war, in January 1946, Choi was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Korean army. From 1946 to 1951, Choi received promotions to first lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, and then brigadier general. Choi was promoted to major general in 1954.
Choi stated he combined elements of taekkyeon and Shotokan karate to develop a martial art that he called “Taekwon-Do” (태권도; 跆拳道), which means “foot, hand, the way” or “the way of hand and foot” and it was so named on 11 April 1955. Choi founded the Oh Do Kwan, and held an honorary 4th dan ranking in the Chung Do Kwan. Due to accusations of dishonesty, Choi was stripped of his rank and position in the Chung Do Kwan. During the 1960s, Choi and Nam Tae Hi led the original masters of taekwondo in promoting their martial art around the world, though these would be only the first of many such endeavors.
ITF taekwondo organizations credit Choi with starting the spread of taekwondo internationally by stationing Korean taekwondo instructors around the world, and have consistently claimed that ITF-style taekwondo is the only authentic style of taekwondo, most notably in early sections of its textbooks. He was also the author of the first English taekwondo syllabus book, Taekwon-Do, published by Daeha Publication Company in 1965. In 1972, Choi went into exile in Canada and the South Korean government formed the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) in 1973. He lived in Toronto until he returned to North Korea in 2000.
Choi died of cancer on 15 June 2002 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Choi is listed in the Taekwondo Hall of Fame with various titles: “Father of Taekwon-Do,” “Founder and First President of the International Taekwon-Do Federation,” and “Founder of Oh Do Kwan.” Choi is survived by his wife, Choi Joon Hee; his son, Choi Jung Hwa; two daughters, Sunny and Meeyun; and several grandchildren.