Grandmaster Seung Yang, a taekwondo instructor for youth at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, leads the class in basic punching drills. [Image: US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Fredrick J. Coleman / Wikimedia Commons]

Before K-pop, There Was Taekwondo: How Korea’s Oldest Successful Cultural Export Became Massive in the West

Korea Asia

Before K-pop and K-dramas, Korea’s biggest cultural export to the United States was taekwondo. In fact, taekwondo is the most practiced martial art in the United States, with at least 3,500 taekwondo clubs and approximately 7 million practitioners. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Anastasija Zolotic became the first American woman to win taekwondo gold. But how did taekwondo become so popular in the United States? The complicated answer includes Korean immigrants, the United States military, the Vietnam War, martial arts films, and child care.

Taekwondo, or “the way of the foot and hand,” became a formalized martial arts discipline in the 1950s. In the aftermath of the Korean War and the decades following, many Koreans immigrated abroad, including to the United States. Many of these Korean immigrants realized they were able to make a living by teaching taekwondo overseas. One famous example of 1950s Korean immigrants bringing taekwondo to the United States is Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, the “Father of American Taekwondo.” In 1965, he taught taekwondo to US Congress members on Capitol Hill. As of 2019, there are 1.9 million Korean Americans living in the United States.

During the Vietnam War, the South Korean government dispatched taekwondo masters to South Vietnam to instruct soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Even Chuck Norris, the famous American action star, began practicing the sport because he was stationed at an Air Force base in South Korea. United States soldiers trained in taekwondo during their Vietnam service brought the martial art back home, where they taught others. Compounding this trend, in 1971, the Park Chung Hee regime declared taekwondo the national sport of South Korea, opening up more government support for taekwondo worldwide.

In addition to government support of taekwondo and an increasing supply of taekwondo masters from Korean immigrants and the United States military, the increasing popularity of martial arts films abroad fueled interest in learning martial arts in the West. Thus, when taekwondo became an official Olympic sport in 2000, it was the only Olympic sport that had the same energy as the martial arts films many were raised on, further increasing the sport’s popularity. At the same time, once government support for taekwondo began increasing over the next few decades, the slow oversaturation of taekwondo studios in South Korea pushed more Korean taekwondo masters to go abroad to open their own studio, furthering the sport’s global reach.

In the past couple of decades, taekwondo studios have become a popular after-school child care alternative for working parents in both South Korea and the United States. By offering school pick-up and drop-off services from the studio, and giving kids an active, after-school activity that doesn’t require much equipment, taekwondo helps fill a child-care void. Relatedly, the low cost and minimal equipment necessary to practice taekwondo has also made the sport popular in lower-income countries.

From the first Korean immigrants who brought taekwondo over, to the American soldiers in Vietnam bringing the practice home, to the American taekwondo Olympic gold winners, the history behind taekwondo’s global spread demonstrates the tightly interwoven histories and cultures of the United States and South Korea.

Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.