A year ago, Hyunmi Choi fled North Korea with her family, traveling furtively through China to Vietnam, where family members hid inside a cramped hotel for three months while waiting to be granted asylum in South Korea. Now, several months into her new life in Seoul, the 14-year-old is finally back in a place she can call home: a boxing ring.
An amateur boxer, Hyunmi dreams of going to the Olympics in 2008. "It's not a dream," she says, between practice rounds in a small basement gym in the eastern part of Seoul. "I'm going."
Of the thousands of tales of defection from North Korea, her story is one of the most unusual. It has gained her a measure of celebrity in South Korea and also sheds light on how even privileged individuals in the North are leaving in search of a new life. The exact reasons for the Choi family's departure remain a mystery.
Unfazed by the abrupt transition from starkly isolated communist Pyongyang to hypercapitalist Seoul, she treats her defection as a minor distraction from training.
"In Pyongyang, I lived well, so my life's not that different," she says. "I went to school and trained in Pyongyang. And now, I go to school and train in Seoul."
In fact, Hyunmi seems hardly aware that she escaped one of the poorest and most brutal regimes in the world. Reportedly 3 million people have died from famine in North Korea, and thousands of refugees risk their lives each year, escaping their country for food or freedom. Whole families have been executed for even the slightest remark against leader Kim Jong Il. But Hyunmi is nonchalant. "I didn't think Kim Jong Il was good or bad," she says. "I just thought, 'OK, he's our leader.' "
About 5 ft., 7 in. and big-boned, Hyunmi dresses like any urban South Korean teenager. She has a trendy layered haircut and wears baggy Cargo jeans and the kind of fake Marc Jacobs corduroy jacket that is all the rage in Seoul. She is outgoing and curious about everything American. "Do you eat three meals a day there? Will you teach me English? I'm so jealous you can speak English. Are there dancers there? I bet there a lot of good dancers," she says.
In North Korea, her family was part of the elite. One uncle is currently a senior police official in North Korea; another works for the secret service. An aunt is Kim Jong Il's personal secretary. In North Korea, her father, Young Jun Choi, was a wealthy import/exporter, one of the exceptional few who could freely travel outside the country to Japan and China. He used to smuggle in music videos and Japanese-made outfits for his daughter.
"She was always a showstopper," he recalls. "She would entertain the family by dancing to those tapes. Of course, she had no idea that kind of music wasn't allowed."
Although he felt watched constantly in Pyongyang, Mr. Choi found ways to outwit the draconian regime. "You're supposed to give all your profits to the government, but we just hid our earnings," he says. "It was the only way to make money in North Korea." He even owned an international cellphone smuggled in from China, something that would have meant prison if he had been caught. "Materially, we lived better there than here," he says.
In Pyongyang, Hyunmi found that she could easily outbox other girls in her gym class. A boxing coach noticed and asked if she wanted to train with him. Her parents weren't happy; they'd hoped she would pursue music. "But she always did what she wanted to do," her father says. "She always spoke her mind."
The North Korean government also noticed her potential as an Olympic hopeful and paid for her training. At age 11, she transferred to Kim Cheol-Joo University, where she trained with a team of 30 college-age athletes. Living in the dorms, she worked out 10 hours a day and went home once a week. She was the only one in her college to have three coaches working round-the-clock with her.
But last March, her father said they were going on vacation to China. "He said: 'Don't bother packing. We'll buy everything in China,' " she recalls.
Like thousands of defectors before them, her father, mother, and older brother crossed North Korea via the frozen Tumen river to China. Because China doesn't recognize North Koreans as refugees, approximately 300,000 North Koreans live in China illegally, unable to cobble the money together to escape and gain asylum in South Korea. But her father arranged for a guide who led them through China - by taxi. After three months in Vietnam, the family won asylum in South Korea.
Although Hyunmi remains puzzled as to why they left, she's adaptable. In the gym, she's the only girl training with male boxers. Soon, she'll transfer to a bigger facility and train with a well-known ex-flyweight champion, Jang Jung-un. She says she'll miss her "opas," her brothers in her current gym. Do they give her tips? She laughs: "It's me who teaches them!"
On a recent Thursday afternoon, she sparred with a 25-year-old male flyweight champion, Jin-Mon Chun. By the third round, she seemed exhausted and outmatched. Then, in a burst of energy, she returned his punches and cornered him with a couple of right hooks.
"She needs to work on her speed," says her father, a towering, ruddy-faced man who used to box a little himself, as he watched from the sidelines. He says the trainers were superior in North Korea. But it was important to leave - for reasons he doesn't want to talk about.
"My children were growing up. They were going to find out what kind of society they were living in," he says, showing his wrists scarred with razor wire. "I was in the camps once. I knew what they were capable of. If there's a specific incident why we left, I can't tell you about it. I still have family in North Korea I need to protect."