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