Martial Art values

Did Putin learn nothing from martial arts?

Editorial: Did Putin learn nothing from martial arts?

Putin’s martial arts credentials questioned

At the Rose Monday carnival in Düsseldorf, Germany, on 15 February 2021, Vladimir Putin was portrayed exposed in an untimely posture in front of critic Alexei Navalny. Ina Fassbender/AFP

No serious martial artist would make Putin’s blunders.

It should now be perfectly clear to everyone — including Vladimir Putin — that it was a grave strategic blunder for Russia to launch an unprovoked invasion upon a peaceful and democratic neighbor, the Ukraine. Despite vehement denials, things have gone badly both for Putin and for Russia. All thanks to the ‘martial artist’ Putin’s utter failure to grasp a single core principle of martial arts.

Indeed, Putin had already lost his war before he started it, principally by violating this cardinal principal from the ancient Chinese military treatise The Art of War:

Know your enemy and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”

— Sun Tzu

Putin — who likes to be considered as a master of martial arts including judo and taekwondo — has instead demonstrated his ignorance of martial arts principles as well as critical strategic considerations. He has:

  • failed to appreciate Russian military’s own weaknesses and overestimated its capabilities while floating his fantasy of rescuing the Ukraine from Jewish Nazis;
  • failed to anticipate the resolve and ability of Ukrainians to resist his invasion; and he
  • failed to foresee how it would unify western nations and strengthen NATO instead of weakening it.

“When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”

— Sun Tzu

The list could go on into details about Russian-style command and intelligence failures. Suffice it to say that Putin failed to grasp even most fundamental injunction that applies to any endeavor, but most especially to the conduct of war.

Why does a reputed master of the theory and practice of judo keep getting slammed on the floor?

Putin’s ability in the martial arts extends no further than the sphere of executing sets of techniques. He has exposed his own failure to comprehend and apply martial art principles to affairs outside of dojangs.
Putin’s ability in the martial arts extends no further than the sphere of executing mere techniques. He has exposed his own failure to comprehend and apply martial art principles to practical affairs outside of dojangs. Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a training session with the Russian national judo team at the Yug-Sport Training Center in Sochi, Russia. Mikhail Klimentyev / AP

Techniques without Principles

Putin’s honorary 9th Dan black belt degrees, however politically motivated, would suggest a certain level of proficiency in both the tactical and strategic spheres. And yet, whatever tactics or tricks Putin may have gathered along the way from judo or taekwondo, nevertheless he has plainly failed to grasp the principles underlying the art of war — unfortunately at a horrific cost in lives and infrastructure, crippling not only a peaceful neighboring country but dealing blows to Russia itself at multiple levels with catastrophic consequences.

This also raises another question. What martial arts teacher or teachers of Putin are responsible for teaching him fighting tactics while failing to teach him anything deeper beyond mere techniques? Did one short-sighted grand master after another lead Putin down the flowery path of flattery? Or was Putin’s martial arts instruction so inadequate that it only prodded him further down the path to his own self-destruction?

Expelled from World Taekwondo

Meanwhile, World Taekwondo has strongly condemned Putin’s “brutal attacks on innocent lives in Ukraine, which go against the World Taekwondo vision of ‘Peace is More Precious than Triumph’ and the World Taekwondo values of respect and tolerance,” in a statement issued on February 28, 2022 shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The International Judo Federation also announced that it had removed Putin from all positions held in the International Judo Federation, the Budapest-based governing body said in a statement. The move came week after World Taekwondo stripped Putin of his honorary 9th Dan black belt. Putin was also suspended as the honorary president and ambassador of the International Judo Federation.

“World Taekwondo condemns the brutal attack on innocent people in Ukraine. This is against the purpose of World Taekwondo and the values ​​of respect-tolerance.”

—World Taekwondo statement

The 69-year-old Putin is a judo black belt and co-authored a book ironically entitled Judo: History, Theory, Practice. So, if Putin is really a master of the theory and practice of judo, why does he keep getting slammed on the floor?

Untethered from Principles

Despite all his power, influence and wealth, Vladimir Putin is sadly only too typical of modern day martial artists who — regardless of their rank or years of training — remain focused almost entirely upon techniques untethered from the art’s unchanging underlying principles. They may become ‘great’ in terms of technical prowess — yet they remain stuck as little more than an advanced class of technicians.

Kangdukwon kwan jan kim Hwa Chong
World Kangdukwon Kwan Jang Nim Hwa Chong

As World Kangdukwon Kwan Jang Nim Hwa Chong continues to remind us, one should aim to think and act like a general, and not think like a foot soldier.

The novice enlists as a private. The dedicated ones advance to become officers. Only a few become generals who can see and predict the whole field of battle.

Likewise, few taekwondo students ever progress beyond the initial stage of basic training. They may learn and master every technical aspect of training, yet without knowing how to apply taekwondo principles to daily life, they struggle to navigate through life and rarely rise to levels of vision and action that commands the entire battlefield of modern life.

Kangdukwon especially and explicitly emphasizes the ethics underlying taekwondo. Each kwan has a character of its own, a distinctive set of principles transmitted from teacher to students. That of Kangdukwon may be said to emphasize generosity in the broadest sense and constant quest to evolve or ‘modernize’ in adapting to changing circumstances.

Peace more important than victory

World Taekwondo said in its official statement that “World Taekwondo condemns the brutal attack on innocent people in Ukraine. This is against the purpose of World Taekwondo and the values ​​of respect-tolerance.” World Taekwondo has always held on to the belief that peace is more important than victory.

We as martial artists owe it to ourselves and to our lineages to embody far more than the outward accoutrements of power and prestige as flaunted by Putin in public and in private. We owe it to more than our teachers and parents to embody the principles that we stand for.




The poem that inspired Nelson Mandela, ‘Invictus’ read by Morgan Freeman

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

“I have given you a compass. Now use it!”

“We must break out of our shells and evolve.”

Tradition versus Innovation

Hwa Chong, World Kangdukwon Kwan Jang Nimand President addresses senior WKF officers

[Ann Arbor, Michigan, 14 August 2021] After nearly seventy years of training and teaching Taekwondo, Hwa Chong, the Kwan Jang Nim of Kangdukwon Taekwondo, continues to urge Taekwondo students of all ages and levels to grow and evolve both as martial artists and as human beings. Taekwondo training and principles, he says, should be understood and applied at all levels and all periods of our lives, otherwise we fail to live up to our full potential as human beings.“We must evolve as individuals and as a federation also. Who can show the way for going forwards?”, he asked a small gathering of senior students from Kangdukwon’s first decades in America.

“We must break out of our shells and evolve” —Hwa Chong

"We must break out of our shells and evolve," says Kangdukwon Grand Master Hwa Chong
“We must break out of our shells and evolve,” Kangdukwon Grand Master Hwa Chong tells us.

Grand Master Hwa Chong was attending a gathering of his senior students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the chief topics of discussion was the future of the World Kangdukwon Federation with the full retirement of Grand Master Chong.

“I am now 82. So I am not sure how much longer I can carry on. You need to make these decisions for yourselves. I am now like the figurehead on a ship, there only for show,” he said to a gathering of senior Taekwondo students and officers from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. 

Addressing the issue of WKF leadership succession indirectly, he praised Chung Ju Yung, who rose from poverty to build Hyundai, one of Korea’s and the world’s most successful business empires. He urged Kangdukwon students and teachers to study the book Made in Korea: Chung Ju Jung and the Rise of Hyundai.

Made in Korea: Chung Ju Jung and the Rise of Hyundai

“In the future, Kangdukwon leaders should be like Chung Ju Yung,” who, he said, embodied all the qualities valued in Kangdukwon: discipline, determination, courage and a willingness to accept risks in the service of his corporate family and the Korean nation.

Taekwondo, he said, was born in the crucible of the Korean War (1950-53), when Communist forces pushed free South Koreans until they had their backs to the sea. They could have accepted the inevitable and fled, but they fought back tenaciously under extremely tough circumstances and saved the nation. That is what is called the Spiritus Invictus, the unconquerable spirit of Korea and Taekwondo, he said.

Korea’s per capita income was only US$67 in 1953. Today it is over $34,000. Because of the spirit and hard work of Chung Ju Yung and other hard-working Koreans like him, today Korea is among the world’s most developed economies. 

“In the future, we should develop and master not martial skills, but business skills. We should work together to conquer markets instead of territories.”

“Don’t forget the North Star!Now I have given you a compass. So use it! Otherwise, without a compass you will get lost and come to a bad end.”

“If you follow honeybees, they will lead you straight to nectar. Follow flies and they will lead you into a pile of dung,” he reminded his students.

It is like that with martial arts also. Authentic Kangdukwon Taekwondo can lead one to the greatest heights of whatever you wish it to be. But follow the wrong dojang or teacher, and in the end one meets with bitter disappointment.

“We must not become tied to traditions. We must keep changing and evolving. That is the spirit of Taekwondo.” –Hwa Chong

“As I have always taught you, avoid attacking an opponent’s strengths. Attack his weaknesses instead.”


Hwa Chong recalled General George Patton, the American general whose ‘three keys to military victory’ were “Audacity, audacity, audacity!” He had learned his lesson from Napoleon Bonaparte, whose motto was “Audace! Toujours l’audace!”

That audacity, that willingness to undertake bold risks or surprising innovations, is what in Taekwondo we simply call spirit.

Grand Master Chong’s concluded by saying, “We must not become locked into traditions. We must keep changing and evolving. Otherwise one gets left behind.” That is true for the individual, true for one’s nation and true for Kangdukwon Taekwondo as well.”

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it”

Someone asked Michelangelo how he created create sculptures such as Pieta and David. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” he said. A world-renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross and her student David Kessler took this as a beautiful metaphor on human nature — “You are the purest and most perfect being.” It may be invisible, but all of us have a “great person” who is waiting to be taken out inside us.  

In 1974 a columnist in the “Boston Herald American” of Massachusetts printed another more elaborate instance with Michelangelo and “David”: 11

“How in God’s name could you have achieved a masterpiece like this from a crude slab of marble?” someone is supposed to have asked Michelangelo.

“It was easy. All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”

They use Michelangelo’s quote to console people who are trapped in self-contempt and despair. They think pure human nature is “covered by masks and roles that they have to wear in reality.” Roles such as benevolent parent, hard-working employee, good student and good daughter or son are pressing down on us like a rock. This is the essence of their healing theory. They advise people to lose the pressure, fear and negative thoughts that they should take responsibility of everything and do “what they want” instead of “what they should.” They tell us to realize that we are more special and significant than we think.

We should cut off unnecessary parts like Michelangelo did, thinking that our mind is a block of stone with a great person inside it. Then, we can recover from despair or self-contempt. It would not liberate us from all the roles we have to play or heal all the wounds we have. But believing that a great being is inside us consoles us. We can find a great person inside us when we cut off unnecessary parts. The imagination itself is consoling. It is all the more consoling because we are living in an era full of distrust, skepticism and cynicism toward human nature.

Courtesy: Dong-A Ilbo of  June 23, 2021

Who is a Do-Ban?

Hwa Chong on spiritual friendship

Everyone needs trusted companions who can accompany one through life as lifelong friends.

In Korean language there is a term for such friends. They are Do-bans, literally ‘Tao companions’.

We must pursue the truths of life by awakening spiritually. That is the ultimate aim of Taekwondo.

Today Olympic sports are pursued for just one purpose: to win. In this single-minded quest to win, however, we forget the greater pursuit of spiritual awakening.

I regard this as the purpose of Kang Duk Won, our ‘Lecture Virtue House’ of Taekwondo.

Collective agreement and collective action is the essence of United States’ social, industrial, and technological achievements.

We have to unite therefore, so small groups (like states) become bigger and stronger (like the United States).

We need a spiritual renaissance. This is the first step to a greater new world.

-Hwa Chong

Who is a Do-Ban?

Do-Ban is a Korean term that one seldom hears in the dojang. It means a friend (ban) in the Way (Tao or Do), in other words, a Dharma friend or in plain English a spiritual friend. 

In Taekwondo we learn through our teachers and through hard training that there are higher aims in life than having a great weekend or having a successful career. Especially in Kang Duk Won Taekwondo, we learn values like honor, loyalty, and generosity, not so much from lectures or discussions as from direct experience, especially by the example of our friends and teachers. We learn that there are certain intangibles, like friendships, that have no price.

A hundred people may all train together in the same dojang, and eventually all of them may become friends. However, not all will become do-bans. In fact, it is rare to find two do-bans in the same dojang or indeed anywhere, for this special type of friendship is quite rare. 

On the surface, Taekwondo seems to be all about fighting, about becoming capable, even fearsome, fighters. But look deeper and you discover that it is about finding and developing something intangible called spirit.

[From conversations with GGM Hwa Chong]