The Kukkiwon (World Taekwondo Headquarters) announced some controversial new black belt promotion rules. I went to attend the second course they offered and kept a diary of it…
Day 1/Friday — Registration and Theory
Let’s start with the the bad news — the details of the course timings and the location of registration was notified to all candidates on the Thursday morning by email. It would be from 11am-1pm on the Friday at the Hotel Kaizer Franz Josef in Vienna. My student Master Eron Miah and I arrived at about 10:30 in the morning, and found a huge queue already going, but just one lady taking the money for all 150 attendees (plus the candidates for the Special Dan Test that is taking part at the same time).
We queued for about 45 minutes before we could pay our course fee and license fee (yes, we had to pay two separate fees €150 for the course fee to ETU and $250 for the license fee to Kukkiwon). Then we were told to go and wait upstairs in the lobby to be called back down because they were going to finish registering the 2nd class attendees first. I missed being able to attend the 2nd Class course by two months, my Kukkiwon 6th Dan test has already happened and the paperwork is with GM Kim Joong-young (the President of Changmookwan HQ, and Vice-Chairman of Kukkiwon High Dan Promotion Panel) in Korea, but it’s needed to be in the Kukkiwon database for me to apply for 2nd Class.
At about 1pm we are called back down and spend about another 45 minutes in one of two queues to actually register on the course, showing our receipt from the previous queue and original Dan certificates (I’m glad the wallet size ones were acceptable, although quite a few people had taken paper ones off the wall and out of frames). Some hadn’t brought them and I’m still unclear if they are actually on the course. Then we had a couple of free hours before the theory evening started.
The American International School in a beautiful part of Vienna is to be our training base for the next few days, so we headed over at just after 3pm, waiting in a combination of the lobby and then moving in to the lecture theatre. Eron and I went to the centre of the front row (following my instructor Grandmaster Sim Pan’s eternal wisdom about always going to the front and centre, then moving if told to).
After a while the hall filled up and Master Park Chul-wung (who is a very passionate and motivating man), the representative from Kukkiwon, told us that when the VIPs come, we should all stand and then sit when they do. The VIPs were: Grandmaster Park Soo-nam, president of Kukkiwon Germany, Dr Reisser (?) the President of the Austrian Taekwondo Federation, the President of the World Taekwondo Academy and then the three Kukkiwon course instructors.
After a few brief welcoming speeches from the VIPs we had our first lecture on the spirit of Taekwondo and the mindset of an examiner/judge (these have been used interchangeably) by the WTA president.
Unfortunately I have to say this was shocking and was possibly the worst hour I have ever had in the company of my Taekwondo family. The reason is that one of the Kukkiwon instructors acted as a translator — and while I’m sure he’ll be an excellent instructor in the following two days, his English was too broken to be able to make sense of his translations. Initially there were some polite requests to repeat things or hold the microphone away from his mouth, but to no avail and then I think the whole audience just resigned themselves to not understanding much of the content.
I like to make vey complete notes, so it will be very telling when I literally past verbatim from my notes below:
First is an introduction to Grandmaster Kim Hyeon-seong, the WTA President. He was in the Kukkiwon demo team many years ago. Part 2 is about the spirit of Taekwondo, developing a strong mind and body (and he repeated that in many sentences). Part 3 is about Taekwondo problems, no idea what they are though. Part 4 is about fair mind, I think…
The second lecture was translated by Master Park, Chul-wung (after I’m sure many people had requested a change of translator) was about the course itself and the current promotion rules. There will be a written test on the last day consisting of 25 items. The purpose of the lecture is to understand the policy and to know how to conduct promotion tests. The procedure for administration and practical testing is described in the rules and Kukkiwon wants it followed as closely as they can. It describes procedures for individual masters as well as representatives of the MNA. Kukkiwon says a master is 4th Dan or above, and can additionally be certified by the Master Instructor Course. Made very clear was that we are Kukkiwon delegates, we represent Kukkiwon in administering the test in accordance with the policy.
For promoting candidates to 1st-7th Dan we will have a recommending code for individual masters (basically a Kukkiwon Membership System login). 8th and 9th Dan must be sat at the Kukkiwon, no exceptions. This hasn’t changed. In Korea all students need a recommendation code from their master, but must actually test at the Kukkiwon. International masters have full authority and delegation to conduct promotion tests.
They made very clear that they want individual masters to recommend candidates, because we know the candidates and they do not want candidates jumping from master to master depending on who charges less. They talked about panels, but did not say that we had to form them. My understanding is as follows: individual masters can still recommend their students up to one rank below themselves (or 7th Dan as a ceiling). If they need to go higher than a master can promote them or if their master does not wish to test them, then they should test in front of a panel of qualified examiners so there is impartiality rather than just going to another individual master.
The Kukkiwon isn’t intending to say that all gradings should be by panels, just they don’t want people jumping between masters. They want to promote loyalty to the master instructor first and foremost. So gradings can either be by their instructor OR an impartial and qualified panel (but masters shouldn’t just test other masters students).
Panels should consist of 3 or 5 people to allow for majority decisions, more than half the examiners awarding 60 marks will pass the candidate. Two giving 80 marks each, and one giving 55 will still be a pass. Try to ignore lots of crazy patches, focus on their Taekwondo, but it can be distracting so should candidates must be told to wear a plain dobok, without stripes or large adidas wording. The specification for where embroidery/logos can appear is described in the regulations.
Kukkiwon stressed again they are protecting individual masters, by requiring promotions that aren’t done by the student’s master to be done by test committees — to stop students moving between clubs, just for cheaper Dan certificates.
Kukkiwon made clear that the final rights to Dan promotion are owned by Kukkiwon, but they can delegate authority to MNA, MOU associations, individual masters and private bodies. They can take this delegation back if masters offer “open Dan” tests (i.e. Masters, but not panels testing other students). If masters take the money and run away, Kukkiwon does care and takes responsibility (they’ll try to help in arranging an alternate examiner and free certificates). They confirmed that Kukkiwon is a non-profit, they don’t make money from events or Dan certificates — that is just taken up with costs. They claim they spent $30,000 to come to Austria. There are approximately 150 attendees (my deputy asked the registration lady), so they still made about $7500 even if it cost $30,000 to send 5 people from Korea to Austria and put them up in a hotel for less than a week. Oh well…
They want to ensure that masters are teaching poomsae not kama, bo or other styles such as Jiu-Jitsu, Karate or other forms of Taekwondo. If they hear about masters doing this and still issuing Kukkiwon Dan, they can take away the authority at any time.
Ali Pourtaheri from England asked if the MNA can delegate authority to other member groups? No one can delegate authority it must be obtained from Kukkiwon directly.
Replacement Kukkiwon certificates are now US$15 and the money should be sent along with a letter/application form to Kukkiwon’s international business department. Foreign Applicants must prove residence of over 6 months. Kukkiwon trusts masters to check this, and keep a record of it, clicking through the warning in KMS to confirm they have done this. Master Park said they will randomly check some applications, if the master cannot prove it, the Kukkiwon may cancel that application, any outstanding applications or all historic applications — they take this not-my-instructor grading by jumping into another country very seriously.
The next lecturer was Grandmaster Kim Ki Young who is on the High Dan Promotion Panel at Kukkiwon. Master Park spoke about dojangs near borders — they say that if a student can’t prove residency in the country of the dojang because they live in a bordering country and travel over, if the master can reasonably prove the student isn’t just shopping around for masters but they are regularly training with that master, it’s fine.
If you have any problems or special circumstance, then call Kukkiwon. Don’t do it angry, but do it with courtesy and Kukkiwon will always try to help. He said he will give his business card, call him 24/7, he has no private life for Taekwondo. If people are angry or do things that cause problems for Taekwondo, then he has no time for them.
Students train hard and sweat. When they come to the test, they are nervous because of their respect for the examiners. So examiners should also respect the candidates and sit upright, paying attention, not talking with panel members, twiddling thumbs or playing with phones.
Ali Pourtaheri of England asked about how can we be harmonious about standards between MNA, independent masters and private associations. This was taken by quite a few independent masters near me like he seemed to be saying that BT should own the Kukkiwon process in the UK, although based on later conversations with him, I think that meaning wasn’t intended. The answer from Kukkiwon was unequivocal and VERY strongly worded — don’t worry about other people’s standards, other people’s test requirements or their benefits — worry about your standards, worry about what you do and stop being disharmonious yourself.
Regarding examiners with foreign citizenship who visit their country of birth; they shouldn’t test students after a single training session, they should have a relationship with the student, to ensure perseverance as one of the tenets of Taekwondo.
After the lecture I specifically asked Master Park Chul-wung about whether going forward I would still be able to promote my own students as a 3rd class examiner because everyone is saying we’ll have to send them to independent panels. He confirmed that it’s not changing and that we can still do this going forward. Fortunately I recorded the audio of this conversation in case I’m later told it’s not the case.
Day 2 / Saturday — Practical and Theory
Going in to the day, I had a few open questions. I asked them and the following were the answers given:
How long is the license valid for because an original newsletter on the Kukkiwon site said 4 years? Master Moon said he was unaware of such a rule and that as far as he knew, there was no expiry (certainly the certificates I’ve seen from the July Invitational Course don’t have an expiry date on them).
What is to stop a student from jumping around? The answer seems to be that in future anyone that is allowed to process dan applications will need to be a qualified examiner, all going through these courses. In it they drill it in to all of us. So I don’t think there’s any process/system in place, they’re relying on educating the examiners.
Someone online asked that I clarify that examiners can test own students, without the need for an independent panel. I asked Master Moon and specifically brought Master Bryan Dundas from Scotland and Master Sheamus O’Neill from Ireland (who were both nearby) and he confirmed that it is correct, individual master instructors who are certified examiners, can still process their own dan certificates for their own students without a panel. I also spoke to Grandmaster Tony Vohra who said he has been told by the International Business Team that nothing changes and he can still promote people without needing an independent panel.
The morning was spent going through all stances. They said that the stances are defined in feet but should be adjusted according to height or body shape, size. Ensuring that Taekwondo looks natural is the most important thing. The only change to the way we do poomsae in our dojang is that the hanging foot in crane stance should be relaxed. We then went through the basic three blocks including telling us all the about the new terminology of naeryo makki instead of arae makki and eollyo makki instead of eolgool makki. They stressed frequently that Taekwondo should be natural, so for example the old correction of when performing a back stance outer forearm block not having the rear arm in a teapot shape goes out of the window, the don’t want the waist unnaturally twisted to be 90 degrees to the direction of travel.
We then went through each of Taegeuk 1–7 before lunch. We first did it in the master’s time (using a Korean phrase to mean this — Kuryong opshi), then we were given some corrections that the instructors in the room noticed, then we did it again in their time, then finally in our own time. For the early few poomsae they made us do it in groups of about a third of the class, with the others watching and “judging”, but they never asked for our thoughts or opinions on what we saw (which is a shame as that would have been a good opportunity to know if we had correctly spotted mistakes). Then we broke for lunch.
After lunch was the same routine from taegeuk 8 to taebaek — their time, general corrections and then their time again, then ours. We were split in to groups of 5 people that will be testing together and this literally took 40 minutes! After this, there was then some confusion on whether we were finished or not. In the end we were told to go to the theatre again for more theory training.
Grandmaster Kim Ki Young (9th Dan, age 72) said from what he’d seen that morning, people are too tight. Everyone should focus on the right movement and slowly add power/acceleration, don’t be all tense. Being a master means never stopping training, through old age — always training and stretching.
He then said about how we should never do the old style kicking, or leg raising exercises while dropping the hands like arae hecho makki. We should ALWAYS keep the hands up when kicking.
We then went through the rules for promotion testing, with the lecturers specifically asking that some sections were read multiple times because they were “important” (i.e. a strong hint that they would be on the test).
The part about accuracy or poomsae is important and how to deduct points. The movements must be quick and sharp, before taking a step must be smooth and ready. Deduct a point if an applicant cannot control their speed. The Kukkiwon feels this smooth->hard transition is important.
Try to aim for smoothness, not stopping and starting like a robot. They want a good connection and balance between movements. They said this was important — during the test, don’t delay between movements to wait for your group-mates, do it in your own time.
If a student makes a major mistake in their poomsae, Kukkiwon rules say they fail. At a retest they can then just redo poomsae, if they passed sparring on their failed test. We asked to clarify (multiple times) that we weren’t allowed to say have another go, they confirmed — definitely a failure, no multiple tries. However, it seemed that there may have been some confusion and they were talking about the physical test on this course, not a regular grading test. This later turned out to not be the case anyway, as a handful of people were definitely given a restart.
Then they announced the poomsae that would be required for the physical test for each class: 1st class was Hansoo and Jitae, 2nd class was Jitae and Taebaek and 3rd class was Pyongwon and Keumgang.
They then said that when examining students for sparring during a grading, it’s not a competition. The marks are for attacking, defensive actions and variety of skills not points won.
They want failing to break to be a failure, it’s not a scored item. Again, this was clarified that if someone fails to make a break, they don’t get a retry they fail. I think most masters in the room were thinking “yeah, right!”
The Kukkiwon advocates forming in-between new tests between Dan ranks also called (confusingly) geup tests, but say it’s up to the master.
They want the tests to be a big event, inviting parents, give gifts, etc.
The next portion of the lecture discussed meditation. Initially pulling up masters from the audience to talk about what meditation means to them. Then Grandmaster Kim explained where the danjung is — half way between the stomach and the bottom of the lower stomach. He explained his way of meditating — breathe in, then really slowly, but forcefully exhale as if you have a tiny straw in your mouth. Tense your stomach throughout, after empty lungs breathe in for 5 seconds naturally. Do this three times each day, then breathe normally afterwards and apparently you’ll never have back pain again.
After all the “subtle” hints, helpers then read out all the questions that are going to be on the exam (but not the answers). These still can be difficult to find (and sometimes even hard to figure out how they are different to other questions on the test), but given that the written test is two days after receiving a 180 page textbook, I think they are being realistic (and kind).
Before leaving for the night I got clarification again from Master Moon Hui-seong that as a 5th Dan, next year I can still promote my students to 4th Dan and he confirmed there is no change there, I can still do it and I don’t need a panel. I asked him in front of Sheamus O’Neill from Ireland and Bryan Dundas from Scotland because there are some mixed messages so I wanted others to hear it. The panel requirement are for open tests, not dojang tests performed by the student’s master.
Day 3 / Sunday — Examinations
So today was the final day of the course, I woke up and had breakfast as usual with my student, Eron Miah, just in the restaurant in the hotel we were staying in. We made it over to the venue for about 8:20 (for a 9am start) and there were already about 10–15 people there. There have only been a few people late for each session, but they do remind you every day about punctuality for the course (as well as taking attendance before the last lecture on the previous evening).
We were told the day before that the schedule for today was a lesson on the higher poomsae from Pyongwon to Chonkwon, but for some reason they decided not to. So we were broken back up in to our assigned groups of 5 from the previous day to work on the poomsae that we knew we needed for the physical test, so for third class this was Pyongwon and Keumgang. We did that as many groups of 5 people all trying to do their own poomsae in their own direction which was an absolute nightmare. The hall we were in was very snug when we were all doing the same poomsae, facing the same direction — so it was even worse when it was chaos.
However, we got some practice in — felt like the poomsae were flowing quite well and some of the guys needed some tweaks for the current standards so I asked Grandmaster Kim Doo-man (8th Dan from Turkey, and the father of a lady I was on the Master Instructor course with in 2013, Rabia Kim) for some input at points and he confirmed in all but one case that my understanding was accurate.
I felt fairly confident at the end of our training period. We then had a short break of 20 minutes and then all sat down again. We came up in our groups of 5 in front of Master Moon, Hui-song (one of the instructors of the course) with him stressing this was for training/practice and was not the test. He said he would give feedback, but I don’t think anyone received any comments. This was a pretty dull and inefficient use of the time and space, with 95% of the class sitting around and waiting while 5 people ran through it, only to not receive anything but a polite round of applause from those sitting around.
After this we were given an hour lunch, this was because Grandmaster Park Soo-nam explained that the shops were further away than expected, as people found out the day before! After lunch we were told to go to the auditorium for the written test. The day before we were given all the questions, so this lunch period a lot of people were going round asking for the answers to the questions (which were freely shared, but couldn’t be guaranteed to be correct). I’d say about 3/4 of the group were confident of the answers, but some were unsure.
Before we could sit the written test, they realised that we would be too close to each other in the theatre, so sent us back up to the gym to sit the test on the floor. The phrasing of the questions wasn’t great, with some really abiguous answers — but it didn’t seem too bad. If you’ve read the book, which admittedly was only given out 2 days before, then the content was all easily found in there. The only interesting one was a question about Skip Dan requirements, but the book didn’t contain much on Skip Dans at all, but I clarified with Cesar that the rules are the same they always have been — no skipping to higher than 5th Dan outside of a Kukkiwon Special Dan Test, nor more than 1 rank being skipped.
With the written test out of the way, it was back to the auditorium to literally sit and wait for 1.5–2 hours while the 15 or so people doing the Special Dan Test performed their test (they didn’t want us seeing that, for some reason).
Interestingly, during this wait the Austrian delegation and Grandmaster Park Soo-nam came in to the room and laid the blame for the lack of organisation solely at Kukkiwon’s feet. They said that they had to arrange the course with only 2 weeks notice, and said they could have arranged for one of the best catering companies to provide food for only €6.50 per head. Why they didn’t do this out of their €150 “course fee” or include it in the email the day before the course started (“Oh, you can have food at the course for €6.50 per head, please bring cash”) is anyone’s guess. Most of the masters present (at least the ones I spoke to) found it a bit distasteful to be taking the opportunity while the Kukkiwon representatives were busy out of the room to be blaming them without them being able to answer back.
After a long wait, and with some people getting very antsy due to upcoming flights (we weren’t given the times of the course until the day before it started, so people had already booked flights long before), we then went back to the gym for the physical test. Those with really close flights (and they had to prove it by showing tickets) were allowed to test first. This took people out of our assigned groups of 5, meaning that we suddenly were forced in to a last minute reshuffle of both groups and places on the floor (as we’d already practiced in our groups so knew where we were to stand). Our group leader, a lovely lady called Ana Paula Silva from Portugal was bumped on to the end of the previous group leaving me to be our stand-in group leader.
After my test had finished and I was leaving the floor, I was nicely surprised to receive a whispered “you did really well” from our Class Leader, Grandmaster Kim Young-hee from Austria. Unfortunately during my student’s physical test, on his second poomsae he badly pulled/tore his hamstring during a high side kick. He sat at the side for a while and iced it, but was unable to retry it. I spoke to Master Moon (mostly in Korean) and he spoke to the panel of Grandmasters and they said that he had done enough to pass the physical portion, so it was no problem.
After everyone had finished, we all sat back on the floor and the WTA President then spoke to us again about meditation, and about how good it is for Taekwondo and health, a little bit about being the example for our students — but again, nothing really about how to be a good examiner. He then handed out a special commendation to GM Kim Young-hee, our Class Leader, and then three citations to a few people. After a brief speech from the Austrian Taekwondo Federation President (when he got to throw in a brief few word subtle jab at Kukkiwon) GM Kim handed out of Completion Certificates. I understand we won’t find out if we pass for about another 6 weeks (just like the Kukkiwon Master Training Course).
We’ve had a great time, we’ve met lots of old friends and new friends. We’ve enjoyed sweating on the floor and finding out that our dojang has a very high standard of accuracy compared to what Kukkiwon wants. The Kukkiwon instructors were good, but didn’t seem as technically accurate as the instructors on the Master Instructor Course in Korea (GM Seol and GM Noh in particular). It pains me to say this, but our main instructor was telling us to do it one way, then an older instructor would come on the floor and do ap-seogi with a bent front knee and low blocks (now called naeryo makki, rather than arae makki) starting from the elbow of the reaction arm, when the previous instructor clearly said they start at the shoulder crease.
The lack of organisation was shocking! Whether the blame lays within the ETU, the ATF, Kukkiwon Germany or Kukkiwon (HQ) is unclear. What is clear is that I’m sure they’ll blame each other — but the communication and organisation of the course needs a LOT of work.
The main problem though is that the course was billed as an Examiner’s Course. But in fact, most of the content was on: how to perform poomsae, how to meditate, loyalty to instructors, how much money people make from Taekwondo and free training with each other. There were passing nods to being impartial, there were passing nods to “if they do this, take a point or two off”, but there was no real public clarification on the rule changes, only in answer to specific questions asked outside of sessions. It’s good to know that for most masters, testing their own students won’t change. Panels convened for Open Dan Tests (open invitation for anyone to attend) must be qualified — and that’s a good thing.
As an example, the book gives more information on scoring gradings, but there are 11 sections to look for during poomsae and one of them is accuracy. If they fail to get the mark for accuracy (so the poomsae is horribly wrong), but get eye direction, tempo, hard/soft, etc correct they can still pass. There was no guidance on how inaccurate it had to be to fail.
I think any Continued Professional Development is good for Taekwondo instructors and masters, but if the rules weren’t changing next year to require this certificate, I wouldn’t recommend attending it in and of itself.