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Front and Center: Jung Kim kicked his way into the gym business

Jung Kim high-fives student Analise, 6, during a class at his North Side dojo on Wednesday in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jung Kim high-fives student Analise, 6, during a class at his North Side dojo on Wednesday in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

The thief’s first mistake was shoplifting from a Korean market in New York.

His second mistake was pulling a knife on a spindly 19-year-old clerk named Jung Kim.

Kim, a former South Korean national taekwondo champion, suffered a cut on his knuckle.

The shoplifter ended up in a hospital.

Thirty years later, Kim now operates three dojos – his headquarters at the North Division Y as well as gyms on the South Hill and in the Spokane Valley – and his students demonstrate their board-breaking punches and kicks during halftime at area college basketball games.

During a recent interview, Kim discussed his childhood dream of competing in the Olympics, how he ended up in Spokane, and his handicap.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Kim: In a town called Junju, about three hours south of Seoul.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Kim: I started training in taekwondo when I was five. I also played baseball.

S-R: What does “taekwondo” mean?

Kim: “Tae” means “kick,” “kwon” means “punch” and “do” means “way of life.”

S-R: What was your goal?

Kim: I wanted to be on the Korean Olympic taekwondo team. But the Olympics were in 1988, and my family moved to the United States in 1986, when I was 19. So continuing to train in Korea was not an option.

S-R: In what division did you compete?

Kim: Light weight – around 150 pounds.

S-R: Is taekwondo similar to boxing?

Kim: Yes, but with lots of kicking. It’s very physical.

S-R: Were you ever hurt?

Kim: Of course! (laugh) I broke my nose, both collarbones and my foot, and I lost three front teeth. But I kept competing, because no pain, no gain.

S-R: When was the last time you competed?

Kim: In 1988, here in the United States.

S-R: How did you do?

Kim: I did good. But I was not eligible for the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team because I was not a U.S. citizen. So I switched from competing to teaching in 1987.

S-R: Before you started teaching taekwondo, what did you do?

Kim: I worked in a grocery store in New York City. It was a Korean grocery store, because I didn’t speak English at all. I only knew “hi,” “thank you” and “bye.”

S-R: How did you eventually learn English?

Kim: By watching “High Noon,” with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, more than 100 times.

S-R: When you were growing up, did you have mentors?

Kim: Many.

S-R: What wisdom helped guide you during your transition in this country?

Kim: “If you have a choice, choose. If you have no choice, enjoy.”

S-R: How did you get into teaching?

Kim: A relative of mine – Y.H. Park, who was the first U.S. Olympic taekwondo coach – invited me to teach in his New York schools. At first I said, “No, I don’t like to teach. I like to train.” But he insisted, and I discovered I had a natural talent for dealing with children.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

Kim: I was a workaholic – teaching eight or nine classes a day, traveling and helping coach the U.S. team. Then I married a friend from Korea, and realized my marriage wouldn’t survive and I wouldn’t have a family life if I continued working at that pace. So I took six months off, and we traveled all over the United States – 30 different cities – and I picked Spokane to start my own business.

S-R: Why Spokane?

Kim: It seemed calm, the schools are good, and there’s a strong Christian base here.

S-R: How did you learn to run a business?

Kim: In New York, I managed seven schools with over 2,000 students for Y.H. Park.

S-R: How much did it cost to start your own business?

Kim: About $60,000. I got a great deal from my landlord because I’m a good negotiator.

S-R: Was the business successful right away?

Kim: No. I was used to big cities, so I was totally off on my estimate of how many people would sign up. For the first 18 months, I didn’t even break even. But then people started to trust me. Spokane is a tough market for the martial arts industry – a lot of schools open and close in less than a year. When people saw I was here to stay, more started coming.

S-R: If 10 students sign up for lessons, how many typically stick around?

Kim: It usually takes three years to go from beginner to black belt. Most schools consider themselves successful if 1 out of 10 students earns their black belt. My numbers are much higher. I had seven students take the first black-belt test I gave in 1999. Now I give the test twice a year, and 30 students take it each time.

S-R: How much does your instruction cost?

Kim: One hundred and fifty dollars a month for unlimited lessons. But I give a discount to people who can’t afford that much.

S-R: Does the economy affect attendance?

Kim: Definitely.

S-R: How about martial arts movies?

Kim: They used to help – “Karate Kid” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” But now kids have so many choices: volleyball, soccer, video games.

S-R: What’s your typical workday?

Kim: I’m usually here at 8:30 in the morning, and leave at 8:30 p.m. On Saturdays I’m here from 9 to 2.

S-R: But you came to Spokane hoping to work less.

Kim: (laugh) That was my goal – to have a small school. But people keep signing up. So in 2006 I opened my South Hill School, and in 2010 I opened my Valley school.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Kim: Everything. Seriously.

S-R: Do you have children?

Kim: Yes, three. The oldest is in college, my middle one is 17, and my youngest is 12.

S-R: Do they know taekwondo?

Kim: Yes. My oldest – Lydia – studied taekwondo, but then she switched to golf and plays for St. John’s University in New York.

S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?

Kim: It’s helped me understand people better, and to appreciate what I have every day.

S-R: What distinguishes Jung Kim’s Martial Arts from other local programs?

Kim: My schools are full time and consistent. Also, I covet students’ hearts rather than their pockets.

S-R: What lessons do you try to teach young people?

Kim: My goal is to help them improve their athletic ability and their self-confidence, and to teach them respect and humility.

S-R: Tell me a success story.

Kim: One of my students is a senior in high school now. His father is a principal. When he started out here when he was 8 or 9, he was a good kid, but he didn’t know when to stop. When he’d practice, he’d punch other kids. Since he made black belt, it’s night and day. He’s much more focused. He understands other people better. He’s a very caring person.

S-R: When people discover what you do, what do they ask?

Kim: “What’s the difference between karate and taekwondo?” I tell them it’s like the difference between Americans and Canadians – similar, but different, because they come from different cultures. Taekwondo is more with the feet, and karate is more hands.

S-R: Would your skills work well in a mixed-martial-arts competition – what they call “cage fighting”?

Kim: I don’t know, because they have rules. You’re not allowed to kick the groin or poke the eyes. But if someone confronts me on the street, there are no rules. Anything goes.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead for your industry?

Kim: The popularity of martial arts goes up and down, and right now we’re at the bottom of the wave. I worry every day, because I have a lot of people depending on me – my children, my staff.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in your instructors?

Kim: Character, personality and heart.

S-R: What, if anything, would you change about yourself?

Kim: Speak English better.

S-R: What’s on your bucket list?

Kim: I’d like to travel all over the world and play the best golf courses every day.

S-R: You’re a golfer, too?

Kim: Big time.

S-R: What’s your handicap?

Kim: Two.

S-R: Wow, that’s excellent!

S-R: Last question: How do you relax?

Kim: I never relax.

This interview has been condensed. Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net

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