Every few weeks the streets of the South Korean capital, Seoul, are blocked with violent confrontations between riot police and disgruntled students or trade unionists. The country's biggest Buddhist sect has been torn apart by brawls between two factions of armed monks. Outside the big cities, politics is dominated by intense rivalries between neighbouring regions. But nowhere is Korean fractiousness better seen than in the national martial art, taekwondo.
This should be a time of great satisfaction for the practitioners of "the art of punching and kicking", as it is literally translated: in the year 2000, for the first time, taekwondo will be a medal sport in the Sydney Olympics. But what should be a proud moment has become the occasion of great resentment. Like Korea itself, the sport is bitterly split between two opposing factions, fuelled by personal feuds, propaganda, defections, Cold War politics and irreconcilable views of Korea's painful history.
The squabbling parties are two umbrella organisations, each representing thousands of national and local clubs in some 150 countries where the sport is practised - the World Taekwondo Federation and the International Taekwondo Federation. As their names suggest, the ITF and WTF are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the martial arts. The ITF is based in Vienna, where its five-man secretariat has been funded and partly staffed by North Koreans. The WTF headquarters is in Seoul, and it is to the WTF that the International Olympic Committee has granted exclusive recognition. The ITF claims 20 million members outside Korea, including at least 25,000 in Britain. None of them can take part in the Olympics, unless they leave the ITF, join the WTF, and play by its rules.
In terms of physical techniques, the differences between the systems are negligible. Taekwondo looks like an acrobatic and rather elegant version of karate. Traditional karatists rarely raise their feet above waist level, but taekwondo is rich in kicks to the chest, head and above. To qualify for each new belt, taekwondoists must also master a pattern of movements called p'umsae which mimic moves used in actual combat. WTF taekwondo requires helmets and body protection; ITF practitioners wear no armour, but do not kick one another in competition. They have different scoring systems, but the principles they operate on are virtually identical.
The differences are grounded in the sport's history. According to the southerners, taekwondo is an ancient art - brochures reproduce murals from royal tombs of the Koguryo dynasty to back up claims that it dates back more than 2,000 years. After Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the WTF contends, a group of like-minded patriots codified the various forms of the sport into the taekwondo we know today.
The northerners tell a very different and dramatic story, centering on the life and personality of General Choi Hong Hi, the King Lear of taekwondo. By this account, it was Gen Choi who invented and named the sport through a "scientific" synthesis of Japanese karate and traditional Korean fighting techniques. In 1966 he founded the ITF, attracting international attention, including that of the South Korean dictator, Park Chung Hee.
To his dismay, Gen Choi found his beloved sport being manipulated for political ends."President Park wanted access to the ITF as a powerful muscle in his dictatorship," he says. "For example, Park had exclusively employed taekwondo instructors to kidnap about 50 Korean students and professors who were studying in West Germany in 1967 ... I was left with two choices - surrender to the injustice or be sentenced for life in prison." Instead the 79-year-old general chose exile in Canada, where he still lives.
The WTF likes to portray Choi as a shrill, but rather inconsequential, troublemaker. Over the last 30 years the general has sent out a stream of impassioned petitions denouncing the southern-based version of taekwondo as a sham, a mere variant of the karate taught during the colonial period by the hated Japanese, a tool "controlled by politicians and Korean CIA officers".
But the WTF has the general in a neck lock - as the Olympics near, Choi-affiliated taekwondoists in Britain report dwindling numbers as ambitious athletes desert for the only organisation that can get them to Sydney. The WTF-affiliated body is holding Britain's first international Taekwondo championship in Birmingham this week, with about 1,500 competitors from 40 countries. But the general is not giving in. His federation plans to dampen its rival's Olympic debut by holding its own tournament in Sydney, just before the Games.
For several months now the two Koreas have been edging inconclusively towards peace talks aimed at eventual reunification. However long this takes, it is likely to be longer still before peace comes to the practitioners of the art of punching and kicking.