Jhoon Rhee's Taekwondo students represent the Stars-and-Stripes at the 1982 July 4th Celebration on the National Mall. Image: Jhoon Rhee International

The Korean Martial Art Taekwondo Kicks the US-South Korean Relationship Forward


What do Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Lee all have in common? Besides the obvious fact that they are all Americans, they all also trained in the Korean martial art of Taekwondo. Originating from Korea, Taekwondo is a combat and self-defense martial arts with acrobatic moves, especially involving kicks. It is estimated that there are at least 3,500 Taekwondo clubs throughout the US and approximately 7 million people practicing the art. Depending on the region and affiliation, Taekwondo may take slightly different forms, but some form of the physical and mental teachings of the practice is found in every US state.

For many practitioners, Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, otherwise considered the “Father of American Taekwondo,” is a living legend that represents the US-South Korean relationship through Taekwondo. In 1965, Rhee began teaching Taekwondo to members of the US Congress on Capitol Hill and in 1983 he had the distinction of being selected as one of the most famous immigrants in US history along with other historical figures including Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Kissinger—Rhee is the only Korean-American to be included in this list. Famous former students include President George H. W. Bush, former US Secretary of State Collin Powell, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and martial arts film star Bruce Lee. Rhee also served as the special advisor to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports during President H.W. Bush’s administration.

Another notable Taekwondo figure is Haeng Ung Lee who started the American Taekwondo Association (ATA). The ATA is regarded as the largest martial arts organization in the United States with more than 300,000 members training at over 1,000 schools. The headquarters is located in Little Rock, Arkansas—Bill Clinton practiced Taekwondo when he was the governor of Arkansas and even broke boards!

Taekwondo arrived in the US as one of the earliest forms of US-South Korea cultural exchange. Taekwondo is respected as a distinctive Korean martial art, yet it has evolved to be accepted and practiced in the US. It is yet another great example of Korean and American cultures interacting and learning from each other.

Hyung Ki (John) Kim is a research intern at East-West Center in Washington.