Following the unification of the Kwans and the political in-fighting of the Korea Taekwondo Association, the Kukkiwon was established as the headquarters for the martial art of Taekwondo. It was intended to be the international governing body providing a standard for Dan certification (the Kwans were still in charge of the training). The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was established to oversee the sport aspect of Taekwondo and its inclusion into the Olympics. On paper and in theory, this was an excellent system and a great way for practitioners to get the best of all worlds: training through the Kwans, standardized ranking by the Kukkiwon and international competition through the WTF. Unfortunately, they didn't factor in the human element.
When the Kukkiwon was established, each of the nine Kwans were given an office there to give the appearance of unity. However for many of the Kwans, this simply meant a receptionist sitting behind a desk and a Master representative who comes in whenever they feel like. The second problem, is that the WTF was also given an office at the Kukkiwon. Not to mention that Dr. Un Yong Kim, the first President of the Kukkiwon, also simultaneously served as President of the WTF, which is why the WTF only recognizes Kukkiwon certification in international competition. However, this is the only the beginning.
The problem is that to be an Olympic-level athlete, you need to devote every waking moment to the perfection of your sport. Eventually, all other aspects of your martial arts training that are not immediately applicable to competition fall by the wayside and you're left with a shell of what once was. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if the WTF and Kukkiwon were truly separate organizations. If they truly functioned as they were intended, with the Kukkiwon upholding and preserving the traditional standards and "martial" art of Taekwondo, there would be no issue. It wouldn't be an issue if, as part of their standards, the Kukkiwon still enforced the self defense training, the practical applications of poomsae and the conditioning of early Taekwondo and its Karatedo predecessors.
But money talks. There's no money in making someone wait the standard 4-5 years for a black belt. Pop them out as a 1st Dan in 2.5 to 3 years, and after only 6 years later (minimum time in grade) they can be a 4th Dan Master Instructor and open another school paying dues to the Kukkiwon. Well aside from becoming a really good competitor, how much can you really learn in that time frame? Not to mention the instructor's course itself was cut from 21 days to just five.
I distinctly remember a conversation with an old training partner of mine who runs a Kukkiwon school and knows he's pumping out sub-standard black belts. He said that it doesn't matter. Those who stick with it will eventually be good, the others got a confidence boost and everyone was happy. NO! That's not how this works! That's not how any of this works!
Ok, melt down over. Getting back to the Olympic motivation. The United States has sent only a handful of people to each Olympics representing us for Taekwondo, yet there are hundreds of thousands of students training in Kukki Taekwondo solely because their school advertises "Olympic Taekwondo." Tell me that's not just a marketing ploy. There's literally less than a .0001% chance you're going to get picked for the team, yet many people train at Kukkiwon schools solely because of the Olympic connection.
The next wave of propaganda crashing through the martial arts community is that the Kwans do not still offer their own certifications or that they have their own requirements on top of what the Kukkiwon states. For awhile, I bought into this too until I got directly involved with several of the Kwans themselves. I began noticing many of the Korean masters and grandmasters had two ranks. They had a Kwan rank and a Kukkiwon rank. But how can this be? If the Kukkiwon was the sole provider of rank and legitimacy, shouldn't that be all they needed? Surely the Kwan rank was only honorary, like a fraternity? Nope.
Even just looking at the curriculum should raise a red flag that the leadership has no understanding of the martial arts at all. For example, the entire purpose of poomsae, hyung, tul, kata or whatever other term you want to use to describe the solo choreographed patterns is to teach the student essential sequences that can be applied in a self defense scenario. Through solo training and perfection of form, the practitioner is in fact studying proper mechanics and alignment. They are studying breathing and timing. The forms encompass more than just striking and blocking. If you look deep enough, you will find a wide array of throws and joint locks. Even grappling techniques. When someone truly understands kata, it is beautiful to watch them perform because you see the intensity of combat in their eyes. You can visualize the fight and feel their spirit.
Now, when Taekwondo was created and the forms developed by the Kukkiwon, they first put together the Palgwe series to replace the Pyung Ahn (Heian/Pinan) forms from Shotokan. Then they decided that the Palgwes "looked too Japanese" so they came up with the Taegeuks. The problem is that whoever put together the Taegeuks had absolutely no understanding of bunhae (bunkai oyo in Japanese). They are literally 8 forms of the most mundane movements loosely strung together into something remotely resembling a pattern.
Don't get me wrong. I know the atrocities that the Japanese committed during their occupation of Korea. I understand wanting your own identity after having it forcefully taken from you at gunpoint for decades. It completely makes sense and I'd want to do the same thing. But change for the sake of change is never a good idea. Surely the top practitioners that made up the Kukkiwon leadership must've understood the essence of kata training and could have developed something with more practicality. But no. What we have are patterns designed for the mobility skills of 5-year-olds.
But no. They don't care about the art. They don't care about self defense. They don't care about you. They get away with it because in Korea, the Kwans still largely handle all of the actual instruction and as long as the minimum standards for Kukkiwon are being met, the government leaves them alone to teach whatever else they want above and beyond that. Ironic though that they work so hard to develop their own identity while forcefully suppressing the identity of their member Kwans.
They get away with it because outside of Korea, we're all just stupid Westerners who aren't really seeking the art. We want fitness and confidence. We want a wall full of trophies. We want bragging rights.
The fallacy of "international rank recognition" is just that. A fallacy. It basically means that should you move and transfer to another school, they'll automatically recognize your current rank and you won't have to start over from white belt. That's perfectly fine if you're joining a school that teaches the same art (or one similar), but to walk into any school of any system, demanding to wear your black belt is not only arrogant, it's disrespectful. In fact, many Taekwondo schools not affiliated with the Kukkiwon will make you start at white belt just out of spite for walking in there with Kukkiwon rank, because of the arrogance displayed by the Kukkiwon. So what happens is those Kukkiwon students who have spent so much money and time on Kukkiwon training look specifically for a Kukkiwon school who will recognize their black belt, no questions asked. This works out great for the organization, because that student will continue to progress and pay testing fees to the organization no matter where in the world they live.
But if we're taught from day one that rank and certification are not the goals, then why does any of that matter? How can our instructors drill it into us every single day that the training you receive is more important than any piece of paper we receive, yet denounce anyone that doesn't have that piece of paper? Remember, certificates only mean as much as the respect you have for the person signing it. That certificate is not going to save your life. No one is going to stop stabbing you because you're Kukkiwon certified (or certified by anyone for that matter). While this article has been directed at the Kukkiwon, this applies to every martial arts organization that exists, even ours. If the training you receive does not adequately prepare you to defend yourself and your family, how is the certification you receive worth more than any other wall paper you can get at Lowe's or Home Depot? If you belong to an organization that can only provide you with paperwork and has no other real benefit, what do you gain from that?
I'm sure there are plenty of Kukkiwon schools out there that provide excellent training and real self defense That's the way it should be. More often than not however, the instructors of those schools have also studied somewhere else and are incorporating training methods from outside sources. And it's a shame. Every martial art on the planet has the potential to be deadly efficient in a combative scenario. There's only so many ways you can punch, kick, throw and lock another human being. What truly defines the efficiency of your study are the training methods that you endure on a regular basis. When your training methods are designed to address the psychological aspects of being attacked, to prepare you to overcome the body's natural responses to duress, you learn to survive. When you learn to bounce around and tap each other while wearing foam suits of body armor, you should also learn how to dig. We react the way we train, and that training will get you six feet under.