With 22 national titles, Cal hosts taekwondo championships
Martial arts teacher has spent three decades shaping Berkeley's influential program

By Fernando Quintero


Kyung-Ho Min

Martial arts master Kyung-Ho (Ken) Min founded the campus's martial arts program in 1969. For three decades since, he taught daily in taekwondo, hankido, judo and kendo.
Noah Berger photo

05 June 2002 | In the world of collegiate martial arts programs, it's a little-known fact that Berkeley has karate-chopped its way to the top.

Campus team members have excelled in official national and international tournaments in taekwondo, judo and wushu and karate. This year, Berkeley will host the seventh World University Taekwondo Championships. From June 12-15, 400-plus contestants from more than 40 countries are scheduled to converge at Haas Pavilion. The event will also showcase potential Olympic competitors for the 2004 games in Greece.

Berkeley tradition
It is no coincidence that taekwondo returns to Berkeley, where the inaugural edition of the championship was hosted in 1986. With one of the strongest taekwondo programs in the country, the campus team has won 22 out of 26 national titles. Its athletes dominate the sport — thanks to the leadership of martial arts master Kyung-Ho (Ken) Min.

Martial arts was introduced to the campus in 1915 when the first judo club was started under Henry Stone, known now as the father of American judo. Decades later, in 1969, Min founded the martial arts program. Since that time, he has added eight styles to the program: taekwondo, karate, hapkido, kendo, kyukkido, taijiquan, wushu and self-defense.

Students are taught by high-ranking instructors in their particular martial arts, many themselves former protégés of Min.

The longtime Berkeley teacher has used his innovative instructional methods and his qualifications to raise the program to its present status. He holds the following black belts: 9th dan taekwondo, 8th dan iudo, 7th dan hapkido and 3rd dan kendo. He has received numerous honors the world over, and served as U.S. team leader for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In 1995, the Republic of Korea gave a $1 million endowment to Berkeley's martial arts program in his honor — the first ever university endowment in martial arts.

A way of life
Min taught classes daily in taekwondo, hankido, judo and kendo until his retirement in 2000 and continues to teach several days a week on a retirement basis. For the spry 67-year-old martial arts master, taekwondo is more than a sport, it's a way of life.

"It is sport and art combined. 'Art' means we emphasize the mental, spiritual and cultural implication of the learning process," he says. "It's all about the formation of a positive character and a broader cultural knowledge."

In addition to fostering a sense of sportsmanship and fair play, "Martial arts gives you stronger confidence and discipline,” says Min. "You can't have control of your lifestyle if you don't have discipline. People think of martial arts as self-defense, but it's really about self-respect. Discipline leads to respect."

The son of a lawyer with a black belt in martial arts, Min was born in 1935 and grew up in North Korea. As a teenager, during the Korean War, he was forced to leave his home and migrate to South Korea. He began his martial arts training in his teenage years. Later, he formally trained in taekwondo while in the Korean military, and served as a member of the Special Services during the war. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art whose name translates as "the way of the foot and the fist."

Min studied physical education in Seoul, South Korea and later came to the United States to continue his graduate studies at the University of Georgia.

"My father wanted me to go to law school," Min recalls. "But the Koreans were invaded by so many forces, and we suffered so much. Under that environment, I created for myself what I wanted to change. I showed talent and competitiveness. In Korea, we had tsirum, something like sumo wrestling. I used to compete with the other kids in the town square. I won sacks of rice many times."

When Min came to Berkeley in 1969, there was much curiosity over martial arts.

"It was seen as something mystical," Min recalls.

But martial arts soon became a part of American pop culture, largely thanks to Korean and Vietnam movie action heroes like Jackie Chan and the late Bruce Lee, whom Min knew personally. However, Min maintains that grassroots efforts to promote martial arts, like his own, are key to its growing popularity.

Uniting disparate styles
Berkeley's martial arts program has exerted a strong influence by hosting tournaments that unite participants from a variety of styles and communities. This integration of the traditionally separate martial traditions has helped to develop techniques and teaching styles.

It has also fostered a sense of mutual respect among all martial arts and raised their visibility. In 1986, the International University Sports Federation approved taekwondo as an event for world championships. Two years later, it became an Olympic sport when the games were held in Seoul.

Min believes the program has also helped countless Berkeley students achieve a balance that can't be attained through a regimen of academic work alone. The martial arts clubs teach the mental discipline needed for success and leadership, he says.

"Today, martial arts is just as relevant as it was when I got here over 30 years ago,"says Min. "Kids nowadays require more focus and discipline to succeed. We are living in a highly competitive world. In order to make it, you need to have the mental and physical discipline you get through martial arts."

Discipline and self-confidence aside, Min added: "If anything, I can still kick your butt."


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