North Korean boxer Choi Hyun Mi is now a world champion
She fights for South Korea after defecting with her family in 2004
She recalls rivals' desperation to win for extra food and money
Failure could mean being ridiculed in front of a crowd
Choi Hyun Mi remembers her hands always ached in North Korea.
“The boxing gloves were just one thin layer of leather,” Choi said. “The older female boxers had hands that weren’t intact. Their fists didn’t even seem human.”
Choi was recruited to be a boxer from the age of 11.
She trained in North Korea until she defected with her family to South Korea in 2004.
Now safe, she recalls the desperation of rivals from poor families who fought for extra food and money.
Choi didn’t need handouts; her father was a successful businessman in Pyongyang. She fought to win.
“I had to compete with people who were fired up with thoughts like ‘we have to delight General Kim Jong Il,’” she said about the late North Korean leader.
For those who made it to international competitions, like the Asian Games being held in Incheon, South Korea, losing would mean much more than going hungry.
“There is a thing called ‘ideological conflicts’ where you are forced to stand up in front of a crowd in North Korea and everyone condemns you… you get denounced to an extent, that wow, you almost wouldn’t be able to continue competing,” Choi said.
The shaming was particularly bad when meted out to competitors who lost to rivals from South Korea, Japan or the United States.
Choi now fights under the South Korean flag, and has become the featherweight and super featherweight world champion.
Her drive is her family.
“Seeing my parents go through tough times trying to adapt to the South and going to school and study subjects totally different from the North, I felt I had to succeed,” she said.
Dubbed the “Defector Girl Boxer” in South Korea, Choi is a rare success story among thousands who escape poverty or persecution in the North to be confronted by the reality of a highly competitive and often indifferent South.
Choi is still looking for sponsorship. Even as world champion, she has financial concerns here.
Although her family may have less money in their new home, Choi knows she is far better off than the North Korean athletes competing at the Asian Games. She seems relieved that she won’t be fighting them; as a professional she is not eligible to compete.
“That could have been me visiting here,” she said.
“Thinking about fighting against those North Korean boxers makes me go blank.
“They have to win the gold medal to eat and make a living. I could be the reason they lose their job,” she said.