Get Adobe Flash player

South Korean UN troops kick up taekwondo storm in Lebanon

by Jihad Siqlawi*

Her bright red Islamic veil framing her young face and contrasting sharply with her white uniform, Walaa Ayoub kicks up a storm as she practises the taekwondo moves her South Korean trainer has taught her.
Ayoub, 11, is among hundreds of young Lebanese benefiting from the martial arts know-how of South Korean troops stationed in the country as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The training has gained in popularity across villages and towns in the south of the country, even overtaking football as the South Korean soldiers try to build bridges with the local population and promote peace through sport.
"We have suffered the atrocities of war just like the Lebanese," said Li Sang-Hyuk, one of three South Korean soldiers who volunteer their time for training and who are part of their country's national taekwondo team.
"We have lots in common," he adds.
UNIFIL was originally created by the United Nations after Israel invaded in 1978 and later withdrew. But the peacekeeping force saw its mandate expanded in August 2006 after the devastating war between the militant group Hezbollah and Israel.
Today the force numbers some 13,000 troops from 25 countries.
The South Korean contingent of 360 soldiers is based in the village of Teirdebba, some 85 kilometres (50 miles) south of the coastal town of Tyre. The contingent is in charge of the daily operational running of UNIFIL's military sites and also provides medical assistance to the local population.
And in keeping with their country's long tradition in martial arts, several of the soldiers also volunteer to give taekwondo lessons to local youths.
"This sport helps to control the body and mind and we enjoy initiating the local population to it," Li said.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art and combat sport known for its devastating high kicks, but in which hand strikes are also permitted.
In 1955, Korean martial artists chose it as their country's definitive martial art, and in 2000, it was recognised as an Olympic sport.
Li said that he and the other two trainers hope to teach their Lebanese students patience, self-control, respect for others and protection of the weak — all principles of the sport.
"Through taekwondo we want to spread a message of peace, friendship and trust," said Kim Ki-Boem, one of the other trainers.
And the message does seem to be getting through.
Since the contingent arrived in July 2007, 400 young girls and boys aged seven to 15 have signed up for classes, which are offered in five villages twice a week.
"We're overwhelmed by the demand," Kim said. "The classes are free of charge and we provide the uniforms."
The contingent uses space provided by local municipalities, putting in matted areas and proper equipment.
Interpreters help to get the message across to the students during classes.
Although girls make up only 10 percent of the students, the mayor of the village of Abassiya, Abdullah Ferdun, says this is a fair number considering he had to convince parents to let their daughters participate in a sport often thought to be violent and to be in contact with boys.
"I argued with the parents that taekwondo is not only for the male sex," Ferdun told AFP. "I said that the sport will help their daughters develop self-defence skills that can protect them."
Walaa Ayoub, who is hoping to earn her yellow belt soon, says she cannot agree more.
"Protecting the weak and defending those who can benefit from our physical force are the main principles of taekwondo," she said. "And it also helps create equilibrium between the body and mind."
Hussein Farfour, 13, another student, said he has become addicted to the sport and hopes to one day reach the rank of master in taekwondo.
"The sport didn't exist in our region before," said Farfour who trains six hours a week and even speaks a few South Korean words and phrases learned from his trainers.
"And the Koreans are a kind people, who are strong like us and want peace."