She came from a small Korean village, he hailed from the USA, East meeting west. She had to fight for her reputation, he had to earn his place at the top. An arranged marriage by their masters. Having to overcome language and cultural indifferences, the only common ground is the martial art they both love. They lived together in the dojang, struggling through the hard times.
Eventually they reach the height of their profession, he becomes the first non-oriental master and she is the first female master, and they become widely recognised as the U.S. number one husband and wife demo team in Kuk Sool. Does this sound like something out of a movie script? Actually it is, but factually based upon the true life story of masters Barry and Choon Ok Harmon, 7th degree Kuk Sool black belts.
Her story begins in Korea.
Choon Ok as a young girl regularly visits the Kuk Sool dojang as a spectator. She enjoys watching the very few women that are practising at the time. She realises that much can be accomplished through practising a particular rather than using just brute force and ignorance. At a somewhat unstable tinme in Korean society she also feels that the self-defence aspect may be of some benefit.
With Choon Ok’s brother already practising and her sister being married to Kuk Sool’s chief Master In Sun Seo, she begs her brother-in-law to let her start practising. Eventually an agreement is met, but there are conditions. “You can start any time but you can never stop,” he insists. Through the initial stages, several times she feels like quitting, but she is always reminded of her initial promise to her instructor. Her daily training schedule is tough, starting at 6:00am and often finishing late into the evening. For several years she maintains this routine.
One day while taking a well-earned break from the dojang, Choon Ok and her sister go shopping, however, after a short time both find themselves being followed by a suspicious looking character. Deciding together they make a dash back to the dojang bringing out the chief master, who kindly catches and escorts the man to the second floor of the training hall.
Choon Ok is instructed to try out her ‘punching’ technique. She is not happy about this After her first attempt the man just laughs at her in the face, another attempt brings the same result, in fact the more she hits him the more he continues to laugh. Her instructor decides to demonstrate the correct manoeuvre, this time in one single attempt. “I want to be able to do that” Choon Ok cries out! She pleads with him to teach her the correct technique. He in turn insists upon hundreds of hours of practise and thousands of repetitions just hitting paper to develop her shoulders.
Several months later Choon Ok asks if she can try ‘hitting’ again, she is told to pick an appropriate body from the street below. An intoxicated man found urinating on the pavement is selected for the task in hand and brought to the dojang by two instructors (remembering that this was a time when many gangsters and thugs roamed the streets of Korea and the authorities were only glad of the extra help cleaning up the neighbourhood).
Choon Ok takes aim and lets loose with an almighty punch, the man is knocked out cold. Deep inside she feels remorse for what she has done, but on the other hand this feeling is mixed with joy for performing the technique correctly and also surprise by the amount of power that has been generated from her strike.
The young Korean girl soon becomes hot news and makes major newspaper headlines after successfully defending herself against a knife assault. Many times she finds herself involved in street self-defence, protecting not only herself but also her close friends too. In fact many of them will not venture out unless Choon Ok is present.
Within her martial art she is also becoming a celebrity, performing over three-hundred demos in the space of two years. She is well recognised as the little Korean girl with the big punch!
His story begins in Korea.
As a young man in the U.S. military police, Barry finds himself serving his country, stationed in Korea. His appetite is already wet by the martial arts, and like most young American servicemen he finds himself training in Tae Kwon Do, which eventually gives him a black belt. One day while walking leisurely, Barry notices a group of martial artists in black uniforms. At the time he considers this quite unusual as most styles in Korea wear white.
Not only were the uniforms different but the moves were unlike anything he had seen. Intrigued by his discovery he inquires furthur about the martial art and joins up as a student of Kuk Sool Won, the fifth time that he has actually signed up as a white belt, as he is already ranked in several other styles of martial arts in the U.S., including Judo, Karate, Kung Fu and also the Tae Kwon Do learnt in Korea.
After several years of hard training, practising anything between two and six hours a day, six days a week, Barry’s instructor, Master Oh Yi Kuen, introduces and helps him to become a direct student under the guidance of Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh, founder of Kuk Sool Won.
After honourable discharge from the US Airforce in 1974, Barry leaves Korea. Fortunately for him, Grandmaster Suh also has plans about immigrating to the US to establish the World Kuk Sool Headquarters in San Francisco. Back in the USA Barry is given the opportunity to continue to train under the Grandmaster and live in the dojang, while all the basic necessitites are met, he has to abide by the three main rules, eat, sleep, train.
While others considered Barry’s predicament to be somewhat undesirable with no money and seemingly no prospects, he considers himself to be privaledged. He knows that he can leave at any time he wishes to, but it is basically a one way door.
For five years Barry sticks religiously to this regime, just eating, sleeping and training under the Grandmaster’s watchful eye. During this period Barry becomes of a young lady practitioner in Korea who he immediately feels attracted to. He asks Grandmaster Suh if an introduction may be possible. Lucky enough for Barry, Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh and Choon Ok’s teacher, Chief Master In Sun Seo are brothers, so with permission, written communication begins.
Unfortunately at this particular time Barry cannot read Korean and Choon Ok cannot understand English, translation of letters is always via the two masters. however, after much correspondence and patience, an arranged marriage is on the cards.
Together in the USA.
Choon Ok and Barry first meet when he picks her up in Korea two weeks before being married in San Francisco on July 13th 1980. Immigration officials find it hard to believe that the marriage is legitimate and that Barry is not being paid for Choon Ok to obtain a green card. It is not love at first sight, but a love that is to grow with time.
Choon Ok is asked about her first impressions of America, she says that everyone looks the same, “big eyes and big noses”.
In 1981 Mr and Mrs Harmon open their first school together in San Mateo, California. Still close enough to continue their training with Grandmaster Suh in San Francisco. their reputation as a martial arts duo continues to grow as they perform all over the US.