ITF versus WTF Taekwon-Do

I hope that martial artists are more interested in the rest of the martial arts and not the decorative branches, flowers or leaves. It is futile to argue as to which single leaf, which design of branches or which attractive flower you like; when you understand the root, you understand it’s all blossoming. – Bruce Lee

One of the most common discussions of the martial arts online is why “my” style is better than “your” style – or “Why I can kick your butt.” It is not the prettiest side of the martial arts, but it is a reality.

Asoka, a ruler of ancient India once said, “It is forbidden to decry other sects; rather the true believer gives honor to whatever in them is worthy of honor.” Several martial artists I know and respect bring this statement to life. Shaped and molded by their philosophies, I look to each art as having something to offer, even if it is not “my” art. I hope that one day, I, too, can pass this understanding on to others.

Taekwon-do has been divided very solidly into the two branches of WTF (Word Taekwon-do Federation) and ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation).

ITF is the branch founded by General Choi, Hong Hi. Based in Vienna, Austria and still headed by founder Choi. It features point sparring, a style containing only light contact. WTF is the World Taekwon-do Federation. The WTF, based in Seoul, Korea, is most known for its sparring style, called international or Olympic. This style of sparring will be a medal sport starting at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Olympic style sparring allows full contact to the chest and head. Punches to the hand and face are not allowed. While both are taekwon-do, ITF and WTF practice different patterns of hyung, as well.

Frequently the two styles clash and often do not mix well. The patterns are different; the names of maneuvers, different; the history, different. The line dividing the two styles, originally drawn at the North and South Korean border now extends around the world. WTF and ITF separated over a variety of issues, including Choi’s support of North Korea and his decision that taekwon-do should be given to the world. The WTF wanted to maintain taekwon-do’s base and home in Korea, under the Kukki-won. To this day, the Kukki-won in Seoul still heads the WTF.

In 1997, I was fortunate enough to walk in both worlds. I have chosen to train in the ITF style. I found a set of instructors with whom I can work, and who can work with me – and they happen to teach the ITF style of taekwon-do. But I also realize that there is much to be learned from WTF as well.

It was the Father of All Taekwon-do Championships in Washington, DC that piqued my interest. It was the first time that I had seen many of “their” patterns, and to my eye they were strange, unfocused. I’m sure that many WTF students at that competition thought the same of our patterns as they were presented.

After the competition, back at a friend’s dojang in Virginia, the true learning started. I saw the heart and soul of taekwon-do shared by white belt and black belt, WTF and ITF. We sat there, talking about our patterns, showing each other what they were, why they had some of the things that they do. In the exhaustion of a 13-hour work day, people eagerly wanted to know about each other’s art.

Later on that summer I attended a summer camp offered by Master Bruce twing, the head of the Blue Wave Association. I knew that they would be doing what I called “the wrong patterns.” I learned the first of the WTF patterns while attending, happily. While there, with a fellow ITF student, presented a pattern that I was working on. I’m glad I did. Where that imaginary line was, I don’t know. For three days there was only taekwon-do. No brand names, no labels. Did I stand out like a patch of dandelions in a field? You bet. I celebrated the differences and the sameness.

After the time with both, I realized that I would like to learn both sets of patterns. While my primary focus is now and will remain to the ITF branch that I have chosen, I have found so much from both students and instructors on both sides of taekwon-do that I really want to practice and understand both forms.

“Our cultural patterns are an amalgam of black and white. Our destinies are tied together,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of great peace and integrity, but most of all a man of vision. I can only hope that more and more people will begin to understand that there is much to share and learn. We are all students, no matter what our rank, no matter what our art. I hope that I can continue to practice with the wise words of a friend in my heart: “Two roads diverged in yellow wood. And I, I took both. And that has made all the difference.”

A week or so after that first summer camp, a student from Virginia sent me a card with the following quote by Rumi, an Sufi mystical poet on it: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field I’ll meet you there.” I’m headed for the field. Are you?

– Guest Editorial appearing in March 1999 issue of Taekwon-Do Times

2 thoughts on “ITF versus WTF Taekwon-Do”

  1. I like your passion, but I wish you would have elaborated a little more on the differences that you saw and what caused the split in the art. Thanks for the article!

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