Today, Korean martial arts are being practiced locally and worldwide. For example, more than one in a hundred of the world’s population practices some form of taekwondo.
Among the best-recognized Korean practices using weapons are traditional Korean archery and Kumdo, the Korean adaptation of the Japanese Kendo.
The best-known unarmed Korean martial arts are Taekwondo and Hapkido, though traditional practices such as ssireum – Korean Wrestling – and Taekkyon – Korean Foot Fighting – are rapidly gaining in popularity both inside and outside the country.
There is also a revival of traditional Korean swordsmanship arts as well as knife fighting and archery in Korea.
Note that few foreign martial art styles are also popularly recognized and practiced in Korea.
Now, let’s now look at the most popular martial arts in Korea.
Popular Martial Arts in Korea
Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, is the most practiced form of martial art in Korea and almost every kid in Korea practices it.
As a sport, it is an event in every major, multi-sports games, including the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, and the World University Games.
Taekwondo is a synthesis of many different martial arts (both Korean and foreign) and is constantly evolving, taking the best of other arts and adapting them.
Its popular success is perhaps due to this eclectic and scientific approach (as opposed to the metaphysical approach and Oriental mysticism of some other martial arts) and to the group efforts of the many Korean masters who created it.
To put the popularity of taekwondo into perspective, it’s the only Korean martial art that’s an official Olympic sport.
#2. Brazilian jujitsu
A foreign martial art style that teaches smaller people to defend themselves against larger assailants, Brazilian jiu-jitsu has grown in popularity in Korea, especially among adults and women.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a self-defense martial art and combat sport based on grappling, ground fighting, and submission holds.
BJJ approaches self-defense by emphasizing taking an opponent to the ground, gaining a dominant position, and using a number of techniques to force them into submission via joint locks or chokeholds.
BJJ’s popularity has indeed spread to Asian countries including Korea.
Hapkido is a style of Korean martial arts that incorporates elements from Japanese Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu.
Hapkido is a hybrid Korean martial art. It is a form of self-defense that employs joint locks, grappling, throwing techniques, kicks, punches, and other striking attacks.
It also teaches the use of traditional weapons, including knives, swords, rope, nunchaku (ssang juhl bong), cane (ji pang ee), short stick (dan bong), and middle-length staff (joong bong), gun (analogous to the Japanese jō), and bō (Japanese).
Hapkido employs both long-range and close-range fighting techniques, utilizing jumping kicks and percussive hand strikes at longer ranges, and pressure point strikes, joint locks, and throws at closer fighting distances.
Hapkido emphasizes circular motion, redirection of force, and control of the opponent.
Practitioners seek to gain an advantage over their opponents through footwork and body positioning to incorporate the use of leverage, avoiding the use of brute strength against brute strength.
The sport of MMA has a bit of traction in South Korea. Spirit FC was a promotion that enjoyed some popularity in Korea, being broadcast on cable TV as well as being the home of future UFC fighters like Denis Kang. The promotion is now defunct, but new shows like Road FC have picked up where they left off.
Road Fighting Championship (Road FC) is a South Korean-based mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion that was officially launched in 2010.
Not to mention the UFC’s fairly deep roster of popular, talented Korean fighters. Ben Henderson immediately comes to mind as the perfect guy to headline a show in South Korea.
Sure, he’s only part Korean and was born and raised in America—but anyone who saw this video knows that South Korean MMA fans don’t really seem to give a crap.
There’s also taekkyeon, which is a traditional Korean martial art that is characterized by fluid, dynamic foot movement called pum balki, or “stepping on triangles”.
Taekkyon includes hands and feet techniques to unbalance, trip, or throw the opponent.
Taekkyon has many leg and whole-body techniques with fully integrated arm work.
Since the twentieth century, Taekkyon has come to be seen as a living link to Korea’s past.
As such, it has provided historical references for modern Korean martial arts and is often considered the oldest martial discipline of Korea.
It was almost wiped out during the Japanese Occupation, before being rediscovered after the Korean War. It has influenced the name and conceptualization of Taekwondo.
Ssirum (wrestling) is a physical game practiced popularly in all regions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where two opponents try to push each other to the ground using a satpa (a fabric strap connecting the waist and leg), their torso, hands, and legs.
Ssirum is distinguished by the use of the satpa and the awarding of a bull to the winner.
Since ancient times, Koreans have practiced Ssirum for physical training purposes during breaks from work and, especially, during big contests on folk holidays.
On folk days, when Ssirum takes place, lots of people (old and young) gather around the ring: wrestlers compete using diverse techniques; spectators enthusiastically cheer on their favorites; and the winner rides a bull in celebration.
As an exercise of the whole body, Ssirum fosters the cultivation of the body and mind.
It also encourages mutual respect and cooperation, contributing to the harmony and cohesion of communities and groups.
Pyongyang, the capital city, plays a central role in enacting, protecting, and transmitting Ssirum, comprising a number of communities, organizations, and institutions concerned with the practice, including the Korean Ssirum Association.
Koreans start learning Ssirum from family members and neighbors from childhood, and it is taught by educational institutions at all levels.
#7. Korean archery (Gakgung)
The Korean Bow (Gakgung or Gungdo) is a water buffalo horn-based composite reflex bow, standardized centuries ago from a variety of similar weapons in earlier use.
Due to its long use by Koreans, it is also known as Guk Gung (or national bow).
The Korean bow utilizes a thumb draw and therefore employing the use of a thumb ring is quite common.
The Korean thumb ring is somewhat different from the Manchu, Mongol, or Turkic Thumb Ring, as it comes in two styles, male and female.
Male thumb rings are shaped with a small protrusion that sticks out that the bowstring hooks behind (similar to a release aid), while the female thumb ring simply covers the front joint of the thumb as protection from getting blisters (pulling heavy bows repetitively with only the thumb can easily cause blisters to form on the pad of the thumb).
A lesser-known style of traditional Korean martial arts is subak.
This martial art involves punching, kicking, throws, and other strikes. Subak actually originated in China, from which it made its way across the border and into Korea.
While subak is no longer practiced in China, it is practiced in Korea, where thousands of men and women train using its fundamental techniques.
Kumdo is a modern Korean martial art derived from Japanese Kendo.
Though romanized in a number of ways when written, Kǒmdo or Geomdo, the meaning remains “the way of the sword” and is cognate with the Japanese term.
As a martial art, Kumdo has become accepted in Korean culture and society since its introduction from Japan to the degree that the term “kumdo” has, in recent history, become a generic label for other Korean martial arts based upon Korean Swordsmanship.
Therefore, kumdo can apply to the sporting and competitive form of swordsmanship, similar to Kendo, or it can be applied to other martial forms of Korean swordsmanship such as Haidong Gumdo or Hankumdo.
Although related to Japanese Kendo, minor differences exist in Korean Kumdo due to appropriation and acculturation.
Such differences include but are not limited to, the use of native terminology, the use of blue flags rather than red flags for the referees, and minor modifications to the uniform.
Martial Arts in Korea have definitely waned in popularity but you can still find many practitioners for them.
Just keep in mind that the bread and butter for a martial arts business is to teach children.
Tang Soo Do and Hap Ki Do are also not as popular in Korea as they are in other countries.
You will find young adults that practice martial arts in and around university campuses.
You can also find adults practicing newer (to Korea)/popular martial arts such as BJJ, or even other non-native martial arts.
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