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Choi Hyun-mi, teen boxing champ, spurs fellow North Korean defectors to keep fighting

Choi Hyun-mi, who fled to South Korea as a girl and soon won a world boxing championship, has helped boost the morale of fellow North Korean defectors who continue to struggle in their adopted country.

By Geoffrey CainContributor / February 17, 2010

In this 2004 file photo shows champion boxer Choi Hyun-mi (left), a 14 year old North Korean female boxer.

Nayan Sthankiya/File


Seoul, South Korea

For the thousands of North Korean defectors living in hardship around the world, champion boxer Choi Hyun-mi has become their Mohammad Ali.

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The young woman who fled from North Korea has become one of South Korea’s most revered faces since winning the 2008 featherweight championship of the World Boxing Association, a title she still holds today.

Her promoters call her the “Defector Boxer Girl,” and the media have dubbed her the “Million Dollar Baby” from North Korea, a reference to the 2004 film starring Hillary Swank about a boxer who rises from penury to fame.

“She overcame all the difficulties and achieved her dreams, though she might have faced discrimination as North Korean woman,” says Kim Kyung-soo, a defector in Seoul, using an alias because he fears government reprisals against his family still in North Korea. “She motivates me to get over the difficulties in front of me.”

Taking punches

Life was not always so glorious for Ms. Choi. Her father, an affluent businessman, wanted to start a new life in the democratic South. So in 2004, she and her family made a daring trek from North Korea, moving across China, landing in Vietnam, and taking up residence as defectors in South Korea four months later. Had North Korean authorities caught her fleeing, they would have imprisoned or executed her, Choi says. Most defectors who return to North Korea are tortured and jailed, and sometimes die in prison camps.

Like other North Koreans who arrive in the highly unfamiliar South, Choi and her family faced adversity. Her father couldn’t find a job, and her mother often wept for their relatives who remained in the repressive North.

Choi, who as a child was scouted in North Korea to become a boxer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, withdrew from social life at her Seoul high school to focus on training – and used her talent to uplift her shattered family. “I was so lonely. I don’t have many memories from that time,” she says.

But hard work quickly brought success. After joining amateur tournaments in South Korea in 2006, she won 17 fights and lost one, taking home trophies for five contests. In 2007, she went professional, and the next year she won her world title.

These days Choi is sometimes greeted in public by frantic fans, and she’s starred in reality television shows alongside famous South Korean actors and singers. “It’s so great to be the role model for defectors,” she says, giving a hearty smile. “They came so far to live a good life, so they need a reason to be cheerful.”