Excerpt from Chapter 13 of A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do
By Alex Gillis
On September 18, 1981, Korean Airlines Flight 901, scheduled for Frankfurt, West Germany, sat for thirty minutes on the runway of Gimpo Airport in Seoul, South Korea, as the crew waited for an important last-minute passenger, Park Chong-kyu — also known as Pistol Park, because he carried a pistol everywhere he went.353 He was a martial artist with deep connections in politics and sports; he had helped to organize South Korea’s military coup d’état in 1961, was a member of the International Olympic Committee, and had steered secret-service agent Kim Un-yong into Tae Kwon Do in 1970. Now, Pistol Park and Kim were leading Operation Thunderbird, a mission to influence the most powerful people in international sports — to convince them that South Korea should host the 1988 summer Olympics, where Tae Kwon Do might make a splashy debut.354
Wearing dark sunglasses, Park finally walked onto the plane. The flight attendants were expressionless. He and Kim had gathered a team of 107 elite Koreans from sports, business, government, the secret service, and Tae Kwon Do, including Korea’s education minister, two former ambassadors, and the kcia’s deputy director. Flying from various countries, the 107 were to meet in Baden-Baden, West Germany, for a crucial Olympic Congress, where the International Olympic Committee would vote for the country that would host the 1988 games. Along the way, Operation Thunderbird would provide security against plots by Choi Hong-Hi and his North Korean friends, because General Choi had threatened to disrupt the Baden-Baden meeting.
Pistol Park and Kim had launched the top-secret Operation Thunderbird in June 1981, when South Korea had been spinning in chaos. After the Kwangju Massacre, President Chun had continued his predecessor’s policy of using martial artists to do some of the nation’s dirty work in Korea, which consisted mainly of smashing unions. One third of political prisoners were workers, and the rest of the workforce took turns going on strike and protesting. Martial arts experts and plain-clothes police officers, called the White Skull (paekkol) strikebreakers, would pad themselves from head to foot and race on motorcycles to protests, where they would wade into crowds, breaking heads as they went.355
The new regime concluded that the fastest and most effective way to diffuse conflict, unite Koreans, and improve the country’s image overseas was by hosting an Olympics. It was such a far-fetched idea that few people inside and outside the nation took Pistol Park seriously, especially because Korea had no Olympic-sized facilities and, as Kim soberly acknowledged, did not even have colour television. But the country had hosted the 42nd World Shooting Championship in 1978, and it had gone so well that Kim and Park, who was president of the Korean Shooting Federation, had dreamt that South Korea could host an Olympics. Perhaps sports would redeem their nation.
Korea was the underdog in the Olympic bid, so the objective of Operation Thunderbird was to entice powerful international sports officials to support the bid. That was the easy part when compared to the bid’s two formidable opponents: first, Nagoya, Japan, which was the front-runner and had begun the enticement long before Korea, and, second, Choi Hong-Hi, who wanted to disrupt the important Baden-Baden vote. Park, Kim, and Operation Thunderbird would take them on directly, because Tae Kwon Do, Korean sports and their nation’s prestige was at stake.
Nagoya in particular was a worry. Korea’s martial arts leaders (and not only Choi) tend to become gently unhinged when comparing their martial arts to Japan’s. Kim did not want Japan to win. He recalled his days in Japanese schools when Japanese students bullied him. Pistol Park was “to take all available steps to win the support of ioc members.” He and others contacted the president of Adidas (maker of sports equipment, including Tae Kwon Do gear), the Mexican president of the Association of National Olympic Committees and many other influential officials. Park worked backstage, gaining support from ioc members in South America and Africa. The kcia also lent a “helping hand,” and overseas Tae Kwon Do instructors lobbied thirteen ioc members in Europe and North America.356
The rumour that Choi planned an anti-Olympic demonstration for Baden-Baden shook the Korean Olympic Committee, which is surprising when you realize who was on that committee — some of South Korea’s most powerful politicians, millionaires, martial artists, and kcia agents. Kim did not believe the rumours but concluded that he needed bodyguards at the meeting, so he “called five Tae Kwon Do instructors in Europe to stand by the entire time,” including Kim Kwang-il, the instructor who had been one of Choi’s pioneers and who had once been arrested in connection with a kcia kidnapping plot in West Germany.357
When the Operation Thunderbird team arrived in Baden-Baden, they had no idea where to start and how to spend their budget. Kim Un-yong switched hotels, staying with ioc delegates, instead of with his Thunderbird team, so that he could eavesdrop on what delegates said about Korea’s chances before the crucial vote — and he reported the discussions to the Thunderbird team, who met their illustrious guests at French and Chinese restaurants in Baden-Baden. The Korean exhibit, with three Miss Koreas and five Korean Airline stewardesses dressed in traditional Korean dress, was inspiring compared to the staid Nagoya exhibit.
No one believed that the Koreans offered only ginseng tea and jade trinkets to ioc members, as Kim later explained. “Compared to us, Japan invited ioc executive members to Nagoya and gave Seiko watches as gifts,” he said. Still, accusations of bribery would fly.358 A New York Times reporter heard that someone had slipped “first-class airline tickets under the hotel room doors of I.O.C. members, expecting them to cash the tickets in, in order to curry their vote for the South Korean city.”359 The Korean team denied the charge.
Tae Kwon Do pioneer Kim Kwang-il and the other Tae Kwon Do experts stood guard in Baden-Baden. One instructor, Park Soo-nam, drove to the team’s hotel with a trunkload of Korean food, because he knew that the members of Operation Thunderbird craved Korean home-cooking. Unfortunately, Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was staying at the same hotel and, security being tight, Park was kicked out of the hotel as a suspected terrorist. He re-entered only after explanations about kimchi and Korean delicacies.
Finally, on the day of the vote, Kim Un-yong entered the Baden-Baden meeting, sat down and fielded questions as if fighting in a war zone. Delegates carpet-bombed the Korean team with requests and criticisms, and Kim deftly handled them all. In the end, after the vote, when ioc President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced in French that the winner was “Seoul, Korea,” the words rang in Kim’s ears. Korea had soundly beaten Japan by fifty-two votes to twenty-seven, which amazed even the cheering Koreans.
“I wonder if the count was wrong,” Samaranch said. It was right. The votes from the South American and African ioc members had tilted the vote in favour of the Koreans. Operation Thunderbird had been a success. Small Korea, the rabbit trying to be a tiger, momentarily rose above both China and Japan, and everyone forgot about the terror and torture under the South Korean dictatorship. Korea would host the 1988 summer Olympics. The whole thing sounded like a miracle, but it was not, Kim said, because victory does not come from miracles; it comes from hard work.
Just as sweet as the Baden-Baden win was the ioc’s decision to include Tae Kwon Do as one of two demonstration sports at the 1988 games. Seoul had little experience organizing world-level championships, but Korea had accomplished a so-called economic miracle, leaping from Third World country to industrialized nation in only two decades, and it would perhaps pull off a sports miracle, too. “The Olympic Games were a turning point for Korea to move into the ranks of the world’s advanced nations,” Kim later wrote.360 Tae Kwon Do would be part of the Olympics, and would show that Korea was not only powerful economically, but also physically and culturally. Olympic glory, power, and millions of dollars spread before Kim Un-yong and Korea, and President Chun picked “Harmony and Progress” as Seoul’s Olympic slogan, a cunning cover for a dictator who was busy hoarding nearly $1 billion in “slush funds.”361
Choi’s men and the North Koreans did not disrupt Baden-Baden.362 However, his son and North Korean agents continued the plot to assassinate the South Korean dictator. And, after his visit to North Korea, Choi began calling himself the “founder” of Tae Kwon Do more frequently. Before that, he had used “founding member.”363 If South Korea was going to steal a martial art that he had named, then it was better for people to know that the “founder” was not happy.
Footnotes (for full reference, please see the Sources section of A Killing Art:
353 Dick Pound, former member of the International Olympic Committee, told me his nickname (Mar. 4, 2008).
354 Details about Operation Thunderbird are from Kim (2002), pp. 6, 78, 101–19, 230, and Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (1989), pp. 29–36.
355 Cumings (2005), pp. 383–84.
356 The kcia was now renamed the Agency for National Security Planning.
357 Their names are in Kim (2002), p. 113.
358 The U.S. House of Representatives, The Olympics Site Selection Process (2000), p. 453, notes: “Peter Ueberroth’s biography Made in America, describes the bidding process for the Seoul games that Ueberroth saw as tantamount to bribery.” Ueberroth was the organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and, later, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
359 “Olympics; Past Scandal Could Haunt I.O.C. Candidate,” by Jere Longman, New York Times (Jul. 15, 2001).
360 Kim (1990), p. 60.
361 Jennings (1992), p. 138, argues, “The Seoul games were conceived [partly] from a desire by a military junta to obscure their brutal image . . .” See also Cumings, JPRI Working Paper No. 20 (2003).
362 Kim (1990), p. 61.
363 Interview, Cariati (Jan. 2008)