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Longtime pro-Pyongyang taekwondo master returns

He was one of three who had orders to assassinate a South Korean leader
Sept 09,2008
Choi Jung-hwa
Ending his 34 years of exile in Canada, a 54-year-old taekwondo master, who was once part of a North Korean operation to assassinate the South Korean president in the 1980s, arrived here yesterday to live in his homeland.

“I have committed some wrongs, whether it was my intention or not,” Choi Jung-hwa said yesterday in a press conference after he arrived in Seoul. “I should pay for what I have done. I also wanted to clear up some misunderstandings about my past.”

The South Korean government said it will question Choi about his pro-North activities, including the assassination attempt and other alleged espionage activities. “We will also ask him about why he has decided to come back to the South,” an official said.

Choi is the son of the founder of the International Taekwon-Do Federation, one of the largest groups promoting the traditional Korean martial art worldwide. Founded in 1966 in Seoul by Choi’s father, General Choi Hong-hi, the federation has long been backed by North Korea since the family’s exile in Canada during the Park Chung Hee regime.

During his days in South Korea, Choi Hong-hi, one of Park’s greatest rivals, worked vigorously to promote taekwondo through the federation. The martial art spread to 50 countries around the world by 1967 and 40 of them joined the International Taekwon-Do Federation.

Believing that Park was trying to push him out of the federation for political ends, Choi and his family took asylum in Canada in March 1972, moving the ITF headquarters with him.

Park soon established the World Taekwondo Federation with Kim Un-yong, who was then working in the presidential security service.

North Korea was quick to approach Choi and the ITF. A native of North Hamgyong Province in North Korea, Choi visited Pyongyang in 1979 with a demonstration team. He had a chance to explain taekwondo to the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, and the North became a supporter of Choi and the ITF.

During the Cold War, the ITF and WTF confronted each other. With Pyongyang’s backing, the ITF became a sports organization with 35 million members from 100 countries around the world.

In June 2002, Choi Hong-hi died in Pyongyang of cancer, and the federation fell under Pyongyang’s control.

“I have always wanted to return home,” said Choi Jung-hwa in an interview with the JoongAng Sunday, the JoongAng Ilbo’s Sunday edition. “In the mid-1990s, my father also wanted to go back to South Korea. His dream is now being realized.”

“I had met with South Korean authorities several times this year at overseas locations, and I was already questioned once in Seoul,” said Choi.

He said he had spoken to the Roh Moo-hyun administration about his intention to move to the South. “I told the South Korean officials at the time that I have always opposed my father’s pro-North Korea policy and disagreed with the North Korean government’s abuse of taekwondo for political propaganda,” Choi said. “I told them that I wanted to go back to the South and try to promote taekwondo in cooperation with the WTF. But the answer was no.”

Choi argued that the liberal administration probably did not want his homecoming to complicate its relations with North Korea, but the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration welcomed his intention to resettle in the South.

During his interview, Choi said By Ahn Sung-gyu JoongAng Ilbo/ Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter
the IFT has long been an organ of the United Front Department of North Korea’s Workers’ Party and orchestrated a series of attempts to assassinate the South Korean president in the 1980s.

Choi said the North disguised its agents as taekwondo masters working for ITF and dispatched them abroad. In the 1980s, there were three attempts by such agents to kill Chun Doo Hwan, then the South Korean president, he said.

According to Choi, the United Front Department funded ITF headquarters and directed its activities against South Korea. In addition to some $1.2 million spent to finance world taekwondo competitions, about $300,000 in operational funds was given to the federation every year, Choi said.

The United Front Department took charge of sending taekwondo masters to countries around the world from the 1980s.

“My father wanted to promote taekwondo in the North, and that’s how the relationship began,” Choi recalled. “But the relationship became unnecessarily deep. In 1979, Choi Seung-chol of the United Front Department visited us in Canada and promised support for our family and the ITF. He proposed that my father visit the North. Soon after, the Choi Hong-hi Taekwondo Demo Team gave its first performance at Pyongyang Stadium in September 1980.”

Choi said a significant number of taekwondo masters are North Korean agents.

“I was involved in training the masters in 1981 and 1982, but since then, the IFT ruled that after training, the masters were to be dispatched around the world,” Choi said. “I have no idea how many North Korean agents were sent overseas as taekwondo masters.”

According to Choi, North Korea established pro-North, anti-South organizations around the world with the taekwondo masters that it has dispatched through the ITF. Such organizations were launched in Germany, Canada, the United States and other countries, he said.

Choi said he was also a part of Pyongyang’s anti-South Korea operation.

The North ordered him in 1982 to kill then-President Chun. Choi said he was ordered to use his connections with gangsters in Canada during Chun’s visit to the country.

Two more separate assassination attempts were to be carried out by ITF taekwondo masters, Choi said.

“As far as I know, there were at least three assassination attempts against Chun by the United Front Department,” Choi said.

A South Korean government source confirmed Choi’s story to the JoongAng Sunday, adding that those failed assassination attempts led to the Rangoon bombing in 1983 by North Korea’s higher level intelligence operatives.

While visiting South Korean cabinet members were killed in the terrorist act, President Chun was saved because his arrival at the Aung San Mausoleum, the site of the bombing, was delayed by traffic.

Choi said he and his father left Canada in early 1982 for Pyongyang.

“I was trained to be an agent,” he said. “At first, I was unaware of this fact. They just asked me if I wanted to study. My passport was confiscated and I had plenty of time to kill, so I agreed.”

Choi said he first studied socialist economy, philosophy and juche, the North’s ideology of self reliance.

“They taught me and my wife how to fire a gun. With my pregnant wife, I practiced assembling a pistol in the dark,” he said.

“In June 1983, I joined the Workers’ Party. But I had no intention to be used by the North,” Choi said.

He then left the North to head the IFT’s chapters in Europe in 1983 before returning to Canada in 1991.

Choi turned himself in and was convicted of plotting Chun’s assassination. He served a year in prison.

Choi said signs of the North’s attempts to completely take over the ITF began to appear in 2001.

“My father was re-elected to the ITF presidency for a six-year-term, but he suddenly declared that he would resign within two years,” Choi said. “I was the secretary-general, so I was to succeed him.”

It wasn’t to be.

Six months after his father’s announcement, the North kicked Choi out of the organization, dismissing him from his post.

“My father cried,” Choi recalled.

Choi’s father died in June 2002 and a commemoration ceremony took place at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang three months later, in September 2002. “At that event, the North appointed Chang Ung, a member of the International Olympic Committee, to be president of the ITF,” he said.

Choi established his own ITF, located in Canada. He is the president of the organization.

By Ahn Sung-gyu JoongAng Ilbo/ Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]