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.
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Even in South Korea, a tough life
The 20,000 or so defectors living in South Korea often struggle to adapt to life here. The government offers a two- or three-month cultural adjustment program, but in a 2006 survey, more than half of defectors said they were unemployed and felt “discriminated against.”Skip to next paragraph
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Prejudice against North Korean migrants has worsened in recent years as relations between the two countries have deteriorated, owing in part to nuclear tests by North Korea in 2006 and 2009, says Yoon In-jin , a sociologist at Korea University and author of “North Korean migrants.”
“South Koreans have bad memories of giving generous support to North Korea,” he explains. “The deteriorating relationship [between North and South] makes many South Koreans feel less generous and tolerant, and this has made public opinion worse towards defectors.”
After 2000, the number of North Koreans settling in the South rose rapidly in part because of a famine, creating a perception that they were putting a greater financial burden on public services.
“South Koreans started to have negative attitudes about them [defectors],” Professor Yoon continues. “They were questioning the government’s generous policy of supporting them.”
Until 2005, he says, the government gave defectors about $1,500 a month, an apartment, and job training, but under political pressure that assistance dropped to $700 a month.
Mr. Kim, who arrived in South Korea in 2007 after spending a year in Mongolia, recalls how he difficult it was to adjust to the hustle and bustle of life here. “I was so scared of what South Koreans would think of me,” he reflects. “I was afraid of telling them where I came from.”
Giving defectors a reason to cheer
For him and others, watching Choi fight offers an escape from the problems of their everyday lives.
“She’s wonderful!” says Choi Kyung-jun, a manager at North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a group of defectors in Seoul, also using a pseudonym. “She’s so young, and she’s overcome so much to reach her fame. She’s a role model for us all.”
Each year, fans say, Choi’s success seems to spread farther around the world. In April, she will fight Claudia Andrea Lopez of Argentina to defend her title for the second time, after she defeated Tsubasa Tenku of Japan last November.
Choi eventually hopes to win all five major world titles, a feat that few boxers have matched.
Choi thinks she can inspire her fans in other ways, too. The champion is prepping for a second challenge that will begin in March: studying sports science at a university in Seoul.
“I know I can’t be a boxer forever,” Choi says. “But I can always spread my enthusiasm in other ways.”
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