The following is an excerpt from the work-in-progress autobiography of Sr. Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi. This section depicts war in some graphic detail. If you are under the age of 12, ask your parent or guardian if it is all right for you to read it..
For a few years we refugee children lived like that, fighting in the streets while our parents worked. Then the refugees decided that they needed a school for the children. None of the local schools had room for us, so we built a tent school for all the refugees, from my age to high school. It was a school for refugees, taught by refugees.
To get to the school, which was near a lighthouse that jutted out into Pusan harbor, we could either take a bus around or a boat across. The bus was very difficult and took a long time. So often we took the boat – a small motorboat – and it would drop us at the lighthouse causeway and from there we would walk.
The trip was so far by bus or by boat that often I was late. This was a horrible problem for me, because I was extremely shy. It was nearly impossible for me to speak in front of other people, I was so small and intimidated. If I was late, I was too afraid of going inside to class, since everyone who was studying would see me enter. So for the first month of school, I didn’t go to school. Instead I played at the lighthouse.
I caught small fish, clams, and crabs. I ate them raw and they were very good. For a whole month I did that, and my parents didn’t know… until the school sent home a letter to the house. Mom realized I hadn’t been going to school, and I got in trouble! That was how shy I was, so shy I missed a month of school because I was scared to walk into the tent.
A couple years later, we moved from Pusan to Chinhae. Chinhae was also a naval base, the largest of the entire Korean navy. The Japanese had used the city as a naval base during its war with China and Russia. South Korea was using the base that was already constructed. My uncle was commander of the base, a one-star admiral. And my father was a civilian still supporting the base. The war was still going on.
We were better off at that time than when we first came to Pusan. We were able to save some money and so we bought land and built a house, a pretty big house. My father was a civil engineer and was helping to build houses around the base. Our wealth was building, and we had enough to eat. Also, we attended the regular school at that time.
I was still a refugee, of course. And still the locals were there, teaming up. Fighting was still a chore, an everyday thing.
Chinhae was a city with many strong Taekwondo schools. My mother’s younger brother, a black belt, studied at one of those school. It wasn’t Taekwondo as we know it now. It was Korean Karate, influenced heavily by the Japanese occupation. But my uncle was one of the best fighters in Chinhae. He began to teach me Taekwondo, and that was when I first started to learn, when I was 8 or 9 years old. When I was 11 I entered the school officially.
Even after three years, we were refugees, even though we went to school with the locals. Still there was friction between us and the locals. It was as if a million New Yorkers relocated to Louisiana. The refugees talked differently, ate differently, fought differently. But little by little the groups were integrating, because in Chinhae we lived together in the same neighborhoods and went to the same schools. Finally we were beginning to fit into the new culture, merge together and build something new.
My family was not wealthy at that time, but we were well off. My mother operated a restaurant. Every day, I asked her to add a package of food to my lunch. It was for the orphans. The war had left so many children without parents, and many didn’t have enough money for lunch. So I shared my food, every day of my six years in elementary school.
I became good friends with a lot of the orphans. Somehow I had a connection with them. Orphans are tough. They are fighters. I saw that, recognized that. So I was always with them, and they were friends of mine.
My parents were concerned. They said, “You have to have wealthy friends to become wealthy.” Then they’d say, “And you need powerful friends to be powerful.” My mingling with the orphans concerned my parents, but it was my passion to help them and to share what I had.
They were survivors just like I was. Fighters just like I was. These are the things I learned as a refugee. To survive, you needed self-defense skills, and sometimes those skills included stealing to live, even though you don’t want to do it. The greatest human martial art is the ability to adapt. But also you can not do it alone, no matter how strong your skills are. One human with martial skills can survive, but two survive easier, and a pack survives easier still. When a group of humans comes together – from mini-peewee to adult —, the skills of survival and self-defense are greater than any one human can have.
That is how I came to be born in North Korea, live as a refugee during a war, and begin my study of human nature and martial arts.