Supreme grandmaster Kim Bok Man is no stranger to taekwondo practitioners here, especially those who are serious about learning the martial art for self-defence, rather than as a medal sport.

Those in the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) circle are familiar with his untiring efforts to promote taekwondo.

A former military man who once served in South Korea, Kim now resides in New Jersey, the United States. He first came to Malaysia in 1963 when then South Korea’s first ambassador to Malaysia, General Choi Hong Hi (hailed as the founder of taekwondo), sought Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s permission to introduce martial arts here.

Choi’s contribution to taekwondo is a well told story, but for now, 81-year-old Kim is the standard bearer for the form of taekwondo that is more focused on self-defence rather than being fixated on scoring points at events such as the Olympics. Kim was brought in by Choi as an instructor, and one of his earlier Malaysian disciples is now 88-year-old grandmaster Low Koon Lin, a 9th dan black belt holder.

Billed as the technical father of taekwondo, Kim has been a taekwondo instructor for the past 53 years, performing before presidents, prime ministers and heads of state all over South-East Asia and Europe.

Kim helped to set up the Malaysian Taekwondo Association back in the 1960s. -- Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang

Supreme Grandmaster Kim Bok Man’s contribution to Malaysian taekwando is huge, ever since he first stepped into the country in 1963 as an instructor. Photo: Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang

In 1941, at the tender age of seven, Kim was introduced to the ancient Korean foot-fighting techniques called to-san.

The outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) spurred his interest in self-defence. Kim joined the South Korean army in 1950 at age 16.

Joining the armed forces gave him the opportunity to hone his fighting skills, and he eventually rose to the rank of sergeant major, and began teaching unarmed combat to other servicemen.

In 1959, Kim visited Saigon at the invitation of the South Vietnamese government to promote taekwondo among members of the police, military and paramilitary establishments.

He was also invited to Taiwan, where he demonstrated the deadly art of using hands and feet before the Formosan police and members of the National Armed Forces.

When he retired from the army in 1962, Kim devoted his life to taekwondo, which literally means the “art of hand and foot fighting”.

Kim visited Malaysia in 1963, together with other high-ranking Korean instructors, giving demonstrations throughout the peninsula. He has even performed before the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Tunku Abdul Rahman.

It was here that Low decided to make the switch from judo to taekwondo after seeing pictures of Kim smashing a flower pot placed nearly 2.7m high with his foot.

Kim helped to set up the Malaysian Taekwondo Association, and also went to Singapore to promote the art.

Through public displays, Kim and six other black belt holders generated a lot of public interest, and the Singapore Taekwondo Association was set up in 1964. Interest spread to Brunei, laying the foundation for the formation of its taekwondo national governing body.

The early 1960s proved to be a highly productive period for Kim and Choi. Kim contributed significantly to the many taekwondo patterns that are now considered compulsory for students following the ITF syllabus.

Choi is responsible for nearly 20 patterns (or tul) that any serious taekwondo practitioner would have to learn, and at least a dozen of these patterns were developed in the compound of the South Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Choi was holding the fort for his country.

“While taekwondo is Korean in origin, Malaysia is taekwondo’s second home,” said Low during a recent summit organised by Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang in Kuala Lumpur. Kim was here for the summit.

Kim went to Sarawak in 1973 at the invitation of the state government to hold road shows, which then led to the formation of the Sarawak Taekwondo Association. He returned in 1975 at the invitation of the Sarawak governor, for the Sarawak Open Championship.

In 1990, Kim came to the United States and opened his first taekwondo school in St Louis, Missouri. He followed up with another school in Denver in 1994. Kim has written three books on taekwondo.

“I would love to come back here more often to teach, and I am open to invitations to uplift the standard of taekwondo here. I could see that even some black belt holders still get their movements wrong. Quite a few are certainly learning the wrong movements,” he said, during a break at the Legendary Taekwondo Summit held at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur recently.

At 88, Low is still a passionate practitioner of taekwondo. Photo: Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang

At 88, Low is still a passionate practitioner of taekwondo. Photo: Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang

Event organiser grandmaster Dr Sam Looi, founder-president of Black Belt Taekwondo Dojang, said it took a year of planning to get Kim here.

“He is a genius in martial arts, and you can’t go wrong by doing things his way,” said American Senior Master Stanley Swope, who accompanied Kim to Malaysia for the two-day event. Swope is also vice-president of the World Chun Kuhn Taekwondo Federation.

Kim is like an ever-evolving martial arts grandmaster, never content with mere status quo.

Over the course of his career, he continued to expand his skills and refine his art. Drawing on his encounters in combat and his training with masters from all over the world, he has introduced an amalgam of techniques for over 10 weapons (yes, taekwondo is not just fighting with bare hands and feet). Kim is also known for his grappling techniques and offensive moves which focus on power and speed. All this fall under Chun Kuhn Do – a form of martial art its practitioners say is new.

Kim’s endeavour to remain steadfast to self-defence can be traced to his disappointment that taekwondo is increasingly compartmentalised and relegated to a sport. Deep inside, he remains a devoted martial artist, who is concerned that the skills he teaches must be useful when self-defence is called for.

In the foreword of the latest book honouring him (Origins Of The Art: Bok Man Kim’s Historic Photospective 1955-2015), Mike Swope, the general secretary of the World Chun Kuhn Taekwondo Federation, wrote: “Without General Choi, Colonel Nam Tae Hi, Master Sergeant Kim, Sergeant First Class Han Chay Kyo, Major-General Woo Jong Lim and many gifted pioneers after them, there would be no taekwondo. There would only be Japanese karate.”

For now, Low is contented with the Malaysian taekwondo scene, even though the Olympic Council of Malaysia recognises only the World Taekwondo Federation as the representative for Malaysia at major events such as the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and the Olympics.

“It is about achieving good health, and maintaining balance, as well as being able to fend for oneself when push comes to shove,” said Low, who started on judo when he was 21, only to face an unpleasant situation later when three men threatened to harm him physically.

Despite starting to learn taekwondo only in his late thirties, he worked his way to being chief instructor.

During the 1960s, he would ride his motorcycle to the South Korean embassy at 5.30am every day.

“I would train until 7.30am, and then go to work. After work, I would go there again to train from 6.30pm to 9.30pm.

“I trained so hard that my wife said I would be a candidate for a madhouse very soon,” he said with a hearty laugh.

This grandmaster’s summation of taekwondo is succinct: It is easy to learn, but difficult to master.