It's obvious that Grand Master Gyung Kun Lee -- better known as G.K. Lee -- has a thing for antique swords. He gives a visitor a brief history of the swords on display in his office and elsewhere at the American Taekwondo Association headquarters, now in a gleaming new structure in Little Rock's Riverdale area.
He reverently picks up and identifies the origin and purpose of each sword. Most are elaborate works of art, with handles of carved wood and forged metal that must have taken their creators untold hours to craft. Looking and listening to him talk about the swords, it's no surprise that Lee is founder and designer of ATA's Protech weapons program.
He shows off a giant Korean drum, also beautifully crafted and on display in the association's museum section, and explains the tradition behind it. He beats the drum when he's stressed, he says, "and then I can't complain."
What do you beat it with? "Chopsticks," replies Lee, who's known for his humor.
After the ATA World Championships, July 8-14, Lee, who turns 62 on Tuesday, will not just be holding weapons or drumsticks. The BeeRyongBong, or ceremonial staff of the ATA grand master, is about to be passed once again ... to him.
Lee is preparing to take over the position of presiding grand master of the ATA, billed as the single largest martial arts organization in the world dedicated to Songahm (meaning "the pine tree and the rock") taekwondo. The martial art's name has been translated as "the way of the hand and the foot."
This year's World Championships also marks the 50th anniversary of the ATA.The week will include testing and competition in various categories, to which spectators will be admitted Thursday-Sunday with tickets costing $15 per day; $25 length-of-event. Only a few $15 tickets remain for the ATA Martial Arts 50th Anniversary Celebration, 7 p.m. July 12 at Robinson Center Performance Hall, during which G.K. Lee will be inaugurated. For a complete schedule, visit ataworldexpo.com.
As the fourth presiding Grand Master, G.K. Lee succeeds Grand Master In Ho Lee, who has served as presiding grand master since 2011; and Grand Master Emeritus Soon Ho Lee, who preceded In Ho Lee. G.K. Lee steps into their shoes as well as those of his late cousin and ATA founder, Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee.
Lee has already donned the black-and-gold ceremonial uniform of grand master instructor, a rank he earned in 2017. Now he dons it as the leader of an association that has more than 900 independently owned and operated licensed facilities, and whose licensees have trained more than one million students since the association's founding in 1969.
"He has spent his whole life preparing for his new role, and now is the perfect time for him to be the new presiding grand master," notes ATA Chief Master Al Dilegge. "The last 50 years of the ATA has led him to this moment.
"As a martial artist, Grand Master G.K. Lee is the real deal. That is something that is very rare today."
How does Lee feel about becoming presiding grand master the same year as the association's half-century anniversary? "I am very excited, very honored and very nervous," Lee says. "My goal is to set the stage for the next 50 years." He hopes to do so in three primary ways: continuing the global expansion of Songahm taekwondo; preserving the traditions established by H.U. Lee; and helping ensure the success of ATA school owners.
Lee also plans to continue the association's charitable work, which has included raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association -- Lee remembers how ATA school students broke boards to raise $1 million to give to the late Jerry Lewis for the MDA telethon -- and the Komen Foundation as well as the H.U. Lee Foundation, which gives out national and regional scholarships to college-bound students.
Lee discovered martial arts early in life. He began his training in 1965, when he was an 8-year-old second-grader.
At the age of 12, he got his first black belt in tang soo do. "At that time, tang soo do was really another name for taekwondo," he says. "I still train in tang soo do, but for me, it is now called Songahm taekwondo."
At the time H.U. Lee left South Korea in 1962, G.K. Lee, who turned 5 that year, didn't know his cousin that well. The two bonded later, when H.U. returned to South Korea and encouraged G.K., then a middle-schooler, to train hard in taekwondo. "He made me believe that becoming an instructor and teaching taekwondo was what I should be doing with my life," G.K. Lee recalls. "He helped me believe that I could make a difference through this sport."
As a young adult, Lee served three years in the South Korean army, where he taught taekwondo. Afterward, he taught it for three years at the U.S Eighth Army base in Seoul. The students were soldiers stationed at the base for only a year, so their training was like a crash course, Lee says. "We trained every day. They were young, eager, and trained hard."
Lee eventually made it to America, settling first in Panama City, Fla. There, he worked for Soon Ho Lee and continued to teach taekwondo. His civilian students were a bit older, but "trained just as hard and were just as dedicated" as those soldiers, he says.
Lee says he always had the belief that taekwondo was going to become a hit in America.
"Taekwondo is more than a sport. It is a way of life," he says. "I knew that if the people would begin training, they would see the lifelong benefits martial arts creates."
It was in 1984, while in Panama City, that Lee met his wife, Chief Master Kathy Lee, who was also working for Soon Ho Lee. The couple have two children -- Lauren, 13, and Grant, 10, who also train in martial arts.
The Lees have been married 30 years, but they were newlyweds of six months when, Kathy Lee says, H.U. Lee called the ATA school in Panama City. She answered the phone.
"He said, 'I need [G.K. Lee] to move to Little Rock to develop a weapons program for ATA,'" Kathy Lee says. "I was in shock. I knew he would be getting the best man for that job."
The couple came here in 1990. G.K. Lee wasn't thrilled with his new home at first. "I was so stressed," he recalls. "It was hot, flat, and had no ocean. I didn't know what to do." But, "after being here for a while, and traveling the state, I saw more of the mountains and trees, which made me fall in love with Arkansas." He and Kathy Lee now have seven ATA schools in central Arkansas. "When I look at everything now, I am so grateful for all that Little Rock has given to me and my family," G.K. Lee says.
"When I think about my husband's new role, my first thought is that he is so ready, willing and able," Kathy Lee says. "He was born for this. He loves to teach and wants to make the instructors even better so that they can pass on the best curriculum to their students. For 35 years, he has been a nonstop, dedicated martial artist."
G.K. Lee trains and guides the instructors at his schools each week, but he also trains instructors from all over the world.
"My role will not change because, as the presiding grand master, my mission is to continue guiding all instructors in the ATA to reach new levels of excellence."
And, as Lee sees it, it's a small world after all.
"I met a Southern Baptist missionary in 1974," he says. "He gave me a scholarship and I worked for him for three years." The missionary, Harold G. Gately, encouraged Lee to come to the United States. "In 1984, I made it my goal to look for him and he was actually located in Fayetteville. ... I always believed this was a sign that Little Rock was meant to be my home."
HAND, FOOT ... AND WEAPON
As part of the ATA, Lee not only developed the black belt program, he made the ATA training program specialized by way of Protech weapons and specialized defense tactics. Training includes use of the Ssahng Jeol Bong (which resembles a set of nunchucks); the Bahng Mahng Ee (a padded stick that loosely resembles a baseball bat); the Jahng Bong (which resembles a long stick), the Gum Do (which resembles the Bahng Mahng Ee), the Ssahng Nat (L-shaped and somewhat resembling a hockey stick); and knife throwing.
"Prior to our Protech systems, ATA focused on forms and sparring," Lee says. "I was always passionate about the traditional Korean martial arts systems and the importance of weapons and advanced self-defense. I just re-introduced what was already out there. The foundation the Eternal Grand Master established was so solid, but he loved the idea of thinking outside of the box, and I did my part to establish that."
To make it to master level in ATA, one must have 20-plus years of training. Grand masters have 35-40 years of training under their belts, Lee says.
"In the ATA, we have programs for everyone, starting as young as 3 years old."
To prepare for his new role, Presiding Grand Master nominee Lee had to go through the same nine-step process as his predecessors. The first three: choosing, approving and petitioning for the grand master nominee, steps that involve the ATA Masters Council, board of directors and the Songahm masters.
"In the ATA, we have a very structured system in choosing new leaders," says Sun C. Lee, widow of H.U. Lee and chairman of the board of the ATA and the H.U. Lee Foundation. "Grand Master G.K. Lee [earned] a unanimous vote as the new presiding grand master. He is very committed, and we are so excited to see what he's going to do in the coming years."
The process gets intense during Step Four: fasting while going through three training sessions of three days each.
Lee refers to Jesus, whom Scripture indicates fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and Buddha, said to have fasted 45 days. "Any religion and any kind of martial art" involves fasting, mostly for discipline, Lee says. "Through cleaning your body ... you can see a little more clear," and rid one's self of destructive emotions such as anger.
"That's what we're teaching -- self-control. ... [If] You can handle that hunger three days -- you can do anything," Lee says. Having already reached the title of grand master instructor, he had to go through this whole process twice. But he knew what to expect.
"Every grand master [has] different training," he continues. "[Eternal] Grand Master H.U. Lee, he did 21-day fasting. Twenty-one days are very, very difficult. ... That's why I chose 18-day fasting." The fasting period incorporated Step Five -- rituals and meditation while maintaining complete silence at a Korean temple -- and "wisdom training."
Designated masters were there to document the first words Lee spoke, breaking his silence, at the same rock selected by Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee and used by past grand masters at the Palace of Warriors.
So what did G.K. Lee say to break his silence?
"I come out [and] say, 'I'm hungry and I'm tired," Lee recalls.
For Step Six, Lee was required to train one day as a student with the other grand masters which, in addition to In Ho Lee and Soon Ho Lee, are Robert Allemier and William Clark.
"You are always a student in martial arts," Lee says of this step. "You never stop learning. This process has been more mental than physical. It's about how to be the best leader and change lives. That's what it means to be a good grand master."
During Step Seven, Lee will put his own touches on the ninth-degree grand master form he'll be performing at the World Championships. Step Eight will be his coronation. Then, Lee will be presented as the new presiding grand master, completing Step Nine.
"He will be very instrumental as we begin our next 50 years," Dilegge says of Lee. "He is a traditionalist but is open to new ideas, which will help the ATA grow."
One of Lee's passions is people who are 60 and older, which is why he's teaching the Super Senior Workout at the championships on July 10. The class is exclusively for black belt holders age 60 or over. Some who are nearing that age have called not fair, says Lee, who has jokingly told them they have to have a fake ID.
Martial-arts masters look at life as providing three different educations in intervals of 30 years, Lee says. "No. 1 education, you're born at ... 30 years old." That's regardless of what college degrees one might hold or accomplishments one might have made. No. 2 is retirement -- just starting a new education. "After 60, martial arts education is No. 1. One is still learning.
"I'm doing third education right now," Lee says. "Taekwondo's secret is not [to] beat up people. [The] secret is [staying] 'forever young' -- and disease prevention. That is called self-defense.
"If you train in taekwondo, you will be 'forever young.'"
There is no maximum age to begin taekwondo training. "I believe anyone can reach a high skill level in taekwondo if you have a good instructor and are willing to do the work, stay healthy and have the support of your family and friends."
Lee cites one instructor, an 80-year-old who's testing for her eighth-degree black belt; his godmother, 87, who is testing for her second-degree black belt and the 97-year-old World War II veteran who just became a master.
"These people are constantly training," Lee says. "Taekwondo -- [the] great thing about it is you discipline yourself. You're pushing yourself."
According to those who know him, Lee is just the man to push students to improve their lives through taekwondo.
"I am so proud of him," Kathy Lee says. "I know his passion to help others achieve happiness, health and success. He isn't just talk. He demonstrates integrity and self-discipline daily. His dedication to ATA is absolute."
All the presiding grand masters have had a motto, or mantra. The mantra of G.K. Lee?
"A warrior conquers all with self-discipline."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 2, 1957, Daegu City, South Korea
• BESIDES MEDITATION, THE THING I DO TO RELAX IS: Spend time in nature
• MANY PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE THAT I: am still a student of my instructors and am still learning.
• WHEN I SEE A MARTIAL ARTS MOVIE ON TV, I THINK: It is something to enjoy but it is not real. We teach our students not to fight.
• MY GUILTY PLEASURE: I don't really have a guilty pleasure. I sometimes spend too much time working when I would rather be with my family. I genuinely love doing both!
• MY FANTASY DINNER GUESTS ARE: my wife; three Korean Masters -- Grand Master Mas Oyama, Rikidozan (a Korean Japanese professional wrestler) and Grand Master H.U. Lee -- and finally, Gen. Douglas MacArthur
• THE BIGGEST MISTAKE I SEE MADE BY THOSE JUST BEGINNING IN MARTIAL ARTS: Not taking [their] time and learning the basics
• MY ADVICE TO ANY ATA STUDENT WHO IS STRUGGLING: It depends of what kind of struggle. There are so many ways to struggle. If it's about technique, go back to the beginning, the foundation, and practice.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Self-disciplined.
“You are always a student in martial arts. You never stop learning.” - Grand Master Gyung Kun Lee
High Profile on 06/30/2019
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Grand Master G.K. Lee will be installed as presiding Grand Master of the American Taekwondo Association