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.
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.
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.