As with most martial arts from the Korean peninsula, the history of Kuk Sool is clouded by fierce national pride. Its true history is a hotly contested topic among Korean martial arts historians. Consequently, most of the information that can be found is little more than conjecture. It should be noted though, that given that native Korean martial arts were almost completely wiped out for a number of reasons, the most recent being the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945, the given "official history" of Kuk Sool is very suspect indeed.1
Kuk Sool literally translates as "National Martial Art". It was begun in 1958 by Suh, In-Hyuk and his brother Seo, In-Sun (the surname is pronounced the same, they just choose different Romanization). It was officially founded as Kuk Sool Won™ (literally National Martial Arts Organization) in 1961. Though there are supposed to be many different influences in the system, the only easily verifiable influences are the instruction of Choi, Yong-Sul 2 to one of the brothers3 and Suh’s study of southern Chinese arts. Because of these influences Kuk Sool is generally regarded as a contemporary of modern Hapkido with a Chinese flair, with its main goal being self-defense. It has since grown to have numerous schools worldwide in 13 different countries.4
It should be noted that while the WKSA’s Kuk Sool Won remains the largest single Kuk Sool organization, but it is not the only one. A number of masters have split from the WKSA (including Seo, In-Sun) to form their own organizations as well.
Students are taught a vast array of strikes. These include punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, palm strikes, etc. Pretty much every conceivable martial arts strike is taught. This includes a large array of aerial kicks, as is common to most Korean arts. While some of these strikes are definitely useful, there is a large number of very impractical striking techniques, such as the Jump-Spinning-Hook-Kick.
As for grappling, there is also a wide array of joint-locking and throwing techniques. However, except for a few small sets at black belt there is no other ground fighting. All the techniques are from a standing position. These usually involve counters to wrist-grabs and counters to clothing-grabs. Once again, there are some very good techniques here, but there is a vast array of very impractical techniques as well, including a number of them that involve crossing the legs and turning your back to your opponent.
Kuk Sool also contains a large number of weapons in the curriculum. Students generally start learning the staff and jul bong (nunchaku) somewhere about half-way to black belt. Once a student reaches black belt the number of weapons taught is greatly increased. However, almost none are taught in a sparring environment. They are generally taught exclusively through forms.
The standard uniform for Kuk Sool is the plain black dobok. Patches may be required depending on your organization. The cost varies depending on vendor, but can be expected to run between $40 and $60 with patches running about $15. Those in the Kuk Sool Won branch of Kuk Sool will be encouraged to buy a "General's Uniform" at blackbelt level. This is a flashier uniform with a metallic trim and an ascot with the korean flag on it. These are required for Black Belt competition in weapons and run about $250.
The only other required equipment would be a couple of weapons. Once a student has been in for a year or so, expect to have to spend $15 to $25 on a staff and possibly the same for a pair of jul bong. Purchase of other weapons is generally not required unless the student plans to compete with them.
Kuk Sool does teach a fair number of good techniques that can be applied in a real world setting. There is also substantial importance put on fitness and flexibility.
The curriculum is full of impractical techniques that serve only to make the practical ones more difficult to remember. This coupled with the fact that a large number of schools do not train in an alive manner makes it very difficult to learn proper self defense at most schools.
Kuk Sool has tried to build a reputation on falsified history, and as such bring into question the credibility of itself. On top of this the testing fees for the various black belt levels (WKSA specifically) are extremely high ($350 for 1st Degree, $500 for 2nd, $750 for 3rd…).
The Bottom Line
While it can be practical if trained right, there are few schools that do train it right. Considering the amount of money a student will invest over the years in this style, the return is sorely lacking. Train in this art if self-defense is a secondary concern to fitness and cultural studies.
0 none, 10 superior
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2 - Founder of Hapkido.
3 - Most reports state that Seo, In-Sun was the student of Choi, and that he taught his brother what he learned.