Credit: Courtesy Kwang Seek Hyun

Modernity and tradition. Relaxation and tension. Chaos and order. Yin and yang—roughly speaking. These are complementary universal forces that can easily lose balance and therefore create trouble. But not at Hyun’s Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do School, a Bucktown martial arts storefront rooted in the same location for over 50 years; an unexpected harmony permeates the air in the school’s children-filled, sun-drenched, and action-packed quarters. That is thanks to Hyun’s owner and founder Grandmaster Kwang Seek Hyun, 77, who manages his business and its culture with a firm yet gentle hand. Anyone who needs some respite from a world saturated with screens and populated by people with bad manners will benefit from the old-school approach promoted by Grandmaster Hyun and his disciples. “In class, I always say that in order for you to become a martial artist, you must first have humility, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and sincerity. You need these five qualities to become the perfect martial artist or self-defender,” says Grandmaster Hyun, who values the mental aspects of his training as much as the physical ones. “Without confidence and alertness, there’s no self-defense,” he says. 

That confidence is practiced early on, as soon as Hyun addresses his prospective young students. When Hyun asks a question, he encourages kids to look straight into his eyes, speak loud and clear, and add a “sir” right after their answer. That is his first lesson right there, and it sets the tone for an environment where elders and instructors are thoroughly respected. There’s no place for improper behavior at Hyun’s school; kids who don’t follow the rules are simply not allowed in the classroom. 

Grandmaster Hyun was photographed in this pose for the Reader 40 years ago. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

Respecting and loving oneself is also highly encouraged: it is actually Hyun’s first rule. “If you can’t love yourself, you can’t follow any of the other rules,” he says. With that kind of assertive posture, it is much easier to command respect and keep the bullies away. Hyun also teaches his students to stay alert and avoid trouble whenever possible: “Once you have confidence, you can see clearly they cannot hurt you, so you can walk away very easily and not feel bad about it. On the other hand, people who are not confident enough want to fight back. For example, if a five-year-old boy bothers you, you simply move away. But if someone your age bothers you, you want to fight back because your confidence level dropped,” Hyun explains. 

Calm confidence is exactly what Hyun conveys, but that might come naturally for someone who is a tenth-degree black belt in hapkido. According to Hyun, he’s the only one in the world to have achieved that degree. 

Hapkido loosely translates to “the art of coordinated power,” and is a Korean martial art specifically designed for self-defense. Hence Hyun’s school’s motto (as seen on a well-loved sign that hung for years outside the school’s Western Avenue location): “martial art . . . not sport.” In hapkido, a fighter will do whatever he can to subdue his opponent—nothing is out of bounds. Hyun informs me that hapkido “seeks not to overpower an attacker with strength, but with techniques that turn an attacker’s force back on himself.” It includes elements from other martial arts such as kicks and punches from karate, joint-locking techniques like aikido, and throws like the ones used in jiujitsu and judo, making the original mixed martial art. 

Hyun’s Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do, and Self-Defense School
North side location: 2743 N. Western, 773-252-8300
South side location: 3722 W. 79th St., 773-284-1300

“It focuses on the psychology of the street fighter, making it a practical martial art for city dwellers,” Hyun advertises in his brochure. It is also great for self-defense for women, and for police and correction officers, of whom Hyun has trained plenty. 

Hyun at his office door, decorated with a 1980 photo of him mid-fight. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

Hyun still teaches hapkido to the teens and adults who attend his school (along with other instructors), but children go to a different area to learn Tae Kwon Do with 46-year-old Kenneth Jeffries. Hyun likes to keep the two groups fairly separate to give the adults some rest. Tae Kwon Do means “the art of foot and hand techniques,” and lends itself to a safer practice for the little ones. A no-nonsense kind of person, Jeffries keeps his students in line and busy throughout the class. According to him, besides kicking, blocking, and punching, students also learn respect, courtesy, and self-control.  

Grandmaster Hyun himself started studying hapkido early on, back in Korea when he was 13 years old. At 13, he also met his wife Joanne Hyun, now 77. The Hyuns have two children, one of whom is a law professor. He later went on to study music at the Seoul National University and served in the Republic of Korea Air Force as a self-defense instructor before coming to the States in 1969. 

Hyun was invited here to teach martial arts at Carroll University in Wisconsin, but soon found his way to Chicago: “I’d been working [at Carroll] for about a year, but I really wanted to train the police department in Cook County. So I got a good recommendation letter from the dean, but during my interview with the police department, they said they didn’t have a budget for me. I told them I’d teach for free for a year, and I did. Once they had a budget they hired me, and I trained the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Academy Department for about 15 years. I always say that criminals never get old, but police officers do. So they’d better be in good shape,” Hyun prescribes. 

Hyun proudly shows off his hapkido tenth-degree black belt certificate. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

In 1971 Hyun opened his first school, in the same location he’s still at. His walls are covered with memorabilia from various honors he’s received from so many years of service. His promotional materials include multiple newspaper and magazine articles he’s been featured in, including two from the Reader in the early 80s. In one of them, reporter Michael Kiefer perfectly defines the object of martial arts: “[It] is not breaking bricks and is not intimidating others. The object is self-confidence and self-control, physical conditioning, and relaxation. The object is to be alert, to be ready without being paranoid, to learn how to take the crap the world has to offer without striking out before you have to.” Or, as Grandmaster Hyun wisely put it: “I avoid dog poop not because I’m afraid of it, but because it stinks.”