Before Queen Yuna: A Glimpse At South Korean Skating History

The idolatry and tremendous star power of Olympic Gold Medallist Yuna Kim in her home country and abroad is unquestionable, yet if you asked most people to tell you much else about skating in South Korea they might be at a loss. Kim was and is the country's first and only Olympic or World Medallist in the sport and as such, has been a tremendous factor in motivating thousands of young skaters to take to the ice. But what about South Korea's figure skating history?

The Korean Skating Union became a member of the International Skating Union in 1948, the same year it established itself as an autonomous country. Not factoring out the obvious factors - political unrest in the region, the Korean War - the federation took a cautious approach to developing its figure skating programs.

Korea's Olympic figure skating debut was in 1968, when Lee Kwang-Young held up in the fort in last place in the men's competition and two women's entries, Lee Hyun-Joo and Kim Hae-Kyung occupied the bottom two spots in their discipline. Much like China's debut on the World stage, a pretty grim start to say the least. Korean skaters didn't start competing at the World Championships until 1972, when Myung-Su Chang finished near the bottom of the pack (eighteenth) in Calgary. Five years earlier, Chang Om Ok was sent all the way to Vienna to compete in the 1967 World Championships but she wasn't permitted to compete. The Korean Skating Union, perhaps unaware of the ISU's rules, didn't realize that ten year old's were too young to enter. Ok was allowed to skate an exhibition.

A big factor in the challenges that early Korean competitive skaters faced was a lack of appropriate facilities. The country's first and (for many years) only rink, the Seoul Sports Center, was built in 1964. An article in the January 1970 issue of "Skating" magazine noted, "The rink... is in poor condition. The ice is usually soft and the cracks or breaks in the ice often go unrepaired for days. Skaters push wooden boards across the ice to clean it... Hockey, speed and figure skaters are forced to practice together - a cause for considerable confusion. Generally, the hockey and speed skaters stay on the outside of the rink while the figure skaters practice their figures in the center. Often the more promising figure skaters are allowed to skate early in the morning - free from the crowd - when the ice is in the best condition to see their figure skaters." In a March 11, 1978 article in the "Ottawa Citizen", World competitor Young Soon Choo, who started skating in England when her diplomat father was posted there and later trained in West Germany, noted that there was "only one indoor ice rink in the whole country of Korea. And they don't have a Zamboni. They just spray it with water." To make matters worse, despite efforts to develop the sport by then Korean Skating Union President and millionaire businessman Tongsun Park, much of the ice time in the Taenung Ice Skating Rink in an eastern suburb of Seoul was dedicated to speed skating.

Young Soon Choo, who finished twenty second in a field of twenty three skaters at the 1978 World Championships, was an anomaly to Korean skating at the time. When skaters were first sent to the World Championships, they were often reasonably competent in school figures but rather deficient in free skating. Choo was quite the opposite. A strong free skater, she actually won the 1980 World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain. Having toured with Holiday On Ice in Europe, moved to Canada, married and taken up coaching, she recalled her historic win in Jaca - the first major international competition ever won by a Korean skater - in an interview with the "Ottawa Citizen" on November 30, 1985: "In those two years (1978 to 1980), I improved a lot. I became more mature between the ages of 18 and 20 and it made a big difference. My friends and I went there to have a good time. I had audience appeal and did a perfect program. It was a pro event and whatever the judges saw they judged."

As in China, the development of figure skating in South Korea was hastened by exposure to the performances of elite skaters. In the March 19, 1985 edition of "The Toledo Blade", it was reported that "for the first time since the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945, Soviet athletes will enter South Korea next week to participate in an international figure skating exhibition... The officials, who spoke only the condition that they not be identified, said the Soviet athletes' visit is part of the International Skating Union's Far East tour to China, Hong Kong and South Korea along with skaters from east Europe, Canada and the United States." Along with the eighteen skaters that attended, officials from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Czechoslovakia also made the trip. This visit was particularly significant at the time as Soviet citizens had not visited Seoul since a Korean commercial airliner was shot down by Soviet fighters of September 1, 1983 but Lee-So-Young, then President of the Korean Skating Union noted that outside politics hadn't affected the goodwill among countries when it came to organizing the visit. He stated, "Soviet officials have shown a friendly attitude during contacts with South Korean skating officials since 1982." Within ten years, pairs skaters and ice dancers were fielded from the fledgling ISU federation at the World Championships.

A historic moment in the development of Korea's figure skating history came in March 1985, when Canadian Federal Sports Minister, Member Of Parliament and World Champion figure skater Otto Jelinek travelled to Seoul and signed an agreement with his Korean counterpart Lee Yong-Ho pledging exchanged access to sporting facilities and training resources in time for both the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. It was an unprecedented gesture of goodwill that offered Canadian Summer Olympic athletes a great opportunity to acclimatize themselves to Korea and Korean skaters valuable training time in Canadian rinks.

It paid off too! Although Byun Sung-Jin finished twenty seventh in the women's event at the Calgary Olympics, Jung Sung-Il qualified for the men's free skate - a feat he'd repeat both at the Albertville and Lillehammer Games. Jung was also the first men's skater from Korea to medal internationally in an 'amateur' competition at the 1991 Winter Universiade in Sapporo, Japan. The women's skater from Korea to medal internationally was of course Lily Lee back in 1989. In 1993 and 1997, Seoul won bids to host the World Junior Championships which paved the country to host the Four Continents Championships several times, the first occasion being in 2002.

From a North American perspective, there's still a lot we don't know about South Korea's skating history... but now next time someone mentions skating and South Korea in the same sentence, you'll be able to bare your Seoul and have a few anecdotes to share.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":