In the service of Kukkiwon V
In 1992, Master Byung-Hee Lee first came to Malaysia to prepare taekwondo athletes for the Barcelona Olympics. That brief stay turned into a lifelong mission: to establish and spread taekwondo in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Since 2014, Lee has been doing this as a Dispatch Master in the service of the Kukkiwon. We spoke with him about his experiences and plans.
TA: Master Lee, you are known as an important pillar of taekwondo in Malaysia today. Could you tell us about your taekwondo background in Korea?
Byung-Hee Lee: My father, who was in the police, encouraged me to start taekwondo. I was 15 years old at that time. So I attended Incheon Sports College and represented Incheon as a taekwondo athlete at the 60th National Sports Festival in 1984 in the middleweight division, and at the 72nd edition of the tournament in 1989 in the heavyweight division. That same year, I transferred to the Taekwondo Department of Incheon University for my bachelor’s degree, and later to Suwon University for my master’s degree in sports science.
TA: Why did you decide to leave Korea and go to Malaysia?
Byung-Hee Lee: I went to Malaysia in 1992. My professor at Yong In University, Lee Kyu Seok, the then secretary general and now president of the Asian Taekwondo Union had recommended me to go. My job was to train the Malaysian athletes for the National Sports Festival in Malaysia and the Olympic Games in Barcelona. At the same time, I was a coach for the Sarawak State team. I was and still am very proud of the athletes who achieved fantastic results despite the short training period.
TA: Can you tell us about your first experience in Malaysia? How did you settle in there?
Byung-Hee Lee: When I arrived in Malaysia and started training, I immediately felt well accepted by the taekwondo athletes. They were extremely eager to learn despite the long, hard training sessions. Therefore, after four months of training, they achieved very good results: Sarawak State athletes won six gold, three silver and three bronze medals at the Malaysian National Sports Festival. And King Hung Hii, an athlete on the Malaysian national team, won the bronze medal in the women’s bantamweight event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
At that time, there were few Koreans in Malaysia. However, I did not have much communication problems because we used the taekwondo training terms in Korean. The students knew these terms and besides, of course, I was able to convey a lot through body language and demonstrations.
TA: What would you say are the biggest cultural differences between Korea and Malaysia?
Byung-Hee Lee: I think the biggest difference is the hierarchical system that we have in Korea, which is the recognition of seniority, experience, age, and so on. This is not practiced in Malaysia, probably because of the country’s unique multiculturalism and multiethnicity.
TA: You have not lived in Malaysia continuously since 1992, but have also been in Brunei and in Korea for a few years in between. How did that come about?
Byung-Hee Lee: I returned to Korea after the short initial stay in Malaysia to finish my master’s degree. Due to the good results I achieved in Malaysia, I was invited by the Sarawak State Sports Ministry in 1994 to coach the team there for four yearsz. In 1998, I was poached by the Brunei Sports Council and was the national coach in Brunei until 2001. After that, I returned to Korea to further my education in poomsae and instructor training under Grandmaster Kyu-Hyun Lee.
TA: When and why did you return to Malaysia – and stay there until today?
Byung-Hee Lee: I returned to Malaysia in 2004 because I wanted to pass on what I had learned from Grandmaster Kyu-Hyun Lee to the taekwondo instructors in Malaysia. With the Grandmaster’s blessing, I now also established a dojang under the name „World Taekwondo Instructors Academy“.
TA: You have lived – with interruptions – in Malaysia for almost 30 years. What do you particularly like there – and what do you miss when you think of Korea?
Byung-Hee Lee: Malaysians are very warm, friendly and kind. The taekwondo students take training seriously and are willing to learn. When I first came to Malaysia, taekwondo was still in its infancy, and I could see it becoming popular within a short time. In Korea, I miss the weather and my families and friends.
TA: What was your motivation to apply to be a Kukkiwon Dispatch Master and how long have you been serving?
Byung-Hee Lee: I applied because I wanted to improve the quality of taekwondo through instructors qualified by the Kukkiwon and to unite taekwondo in Malaysia. I have been a Kukkiwon Dispatch Master in Malaysia since 2014.
TA: What is the situation of taekwondo in Malaysia, how many clubs and athletes are there?
Byung-Hee Lee: In Malaysia, taekwondo is divided into national associations and various organizations. About 70 percent of taekwondo practitioners belong to Taekwondo Malaysia 30 percent belong to other organizations. There are over a thousand clubs in Malaysia. Most practitioners teach taekwondo in schools, as part of the curriculum for extracurricular activities.
TA: How popular is taekwondo in Malaysia?
Byung-Hee Lee: It is one of the most popular martial arts and sports in general in Malaysia.
TA: What are the strengths of taekwondo in Malaysia and where would you like to improve?
Byung-Hee Lee: Taekwondo in Malaysia positively stands out in that we have many masters and instructors. However, we need more Kukkiwon-qualified masters and instructors.
TA: What are your duties and activities as a Dispatch Master?
Byung-Hee Lee: Under the Dispatch Master program, I am now the chief instructor for the Malaysia Police. I promote the Kukkiwon-recognized programs and courses for qualified instructors. These include the International Master Course, Examiner Training, and the International Hanmadang Referee Course. In addition, we have already organized the Hanmadang competition for Malaysia and for Asia.
TA: What activity as a Dispatchmaster do you personally enjoy the most?
Byung-Hee Lee: I especially enjoy teaching masters and instructors.
TA: What taekwondo activities in particular have helped to raise the Malaysian public’s interest in taekwondo and spread the sport further?
Byung-Hee Lee: I think that competitions and courses arouse strong interest and have an identity-building effect among taekwondo practitioners.
Police officers who are now Kukkiwon-qualified instructors are also important multipliers. They have gone back to their respective units, started teaching taekwondo there, and even created classes for the police officers‘ children!
TA: What are your most memorable moments in spreading taekwondo in Malaysia? What are you personally most proud of?
Byung-Hee Lee: What makes me proud is the bronze medal by my first Malaysian athlete at the Barcelona Olympics, the development of taekwondo in the Malaysian police force, and my young students winning the silver medal in the Poomsae team event at the World Hanmadang Competition in Pyeongchang.
TA: What are your goals, ideas and plans for future activities?
Byung-Hee Lee: My desire is mainly to further advance my activities and teach Taekwondo to the police, masters, instructors and more athletes in Malaysia with the aim of making them Kukkiwon-qualified Taekwondo practitioners.
TA: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Byung-Hee Lee: We live in a fast-paced, modern world today. I hope we can always find the time to be passionate about taekwondo and spend time doing taekwondo together with our families and friends.
TA: Thank you for this interview.