Fighting for freedom: Korea's 'Million Dollar Baby' highlights defectors' plight

Boxing champion Choi Hyun-mi, 17, finds life a bruising struggle after fleeing the North. David McNeill reports
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It sounds like the tear-stained final reel of a boxing B-movie. In the winning corner, our pulped and bloodied hero clasps a world championship trophy between gloved mitts while her weeping parents look on. As cameras flash, their eyes meet, recalling years of fear, poverty and discrimination.

Such was the real-life scene last month in a packed South Korean gymnasium when Choi Hyun-mi won the World Boxing Association's women's featherweight title, after a bruising bout with her Chinese opponent. Poor, female and North Korean, 17-year-old Choi has caught the South's imagination and thrown an unwelcome spotlight on the sorry plight of defectors from behind the bamboo curtain.

Dubbed Korea's "Million Dollar Baby" after the Hollywood film about women's boxing starring Hilary Swank, Choi arrived in Seoul four years ago with the largest group of northern refugees ever to land in the South's capital. A former amateur boxing champion, she had been plucked as an 11-year old from a Pyongyang school by government scouts who later began priming her for the Beijing Olympics. Life was to take a different course.

In 2004 Ms Choi's businessman father opted for a fresh start in the capitalist South, a decision that took his family on a dangerous trek through China and Vietnam before they arrived in Seoul four months later. But life in their new home has been hard. Her father is on the dole, mother cries a lot and thoughts often turn to what they left behind. "We miss our family, especially during holidays," says Choi. "But we know we can't go back."

Choi's story is not unusual, say observers. Although given government help and cash to resettle, the South's roughly 11,000 defectors struggle with cultural differences, poverty, alienation and even local accents. After a lifetime in the time-warped Stalinist state, most lack the skills needed to thrive in a technologically advanced society. In a 2006 survey of 300 North Korean refugees, 60 per cent said they were unemployed, over half felt "discriminated against" and two-thirds wanted to emigrate. Some have returned home to the country they abandoned.

Still, the steady flow of refugees grows: from 312 in 2000 to 2,544 last year. South Koreans, who often view them as hick outsiders, take little interest in their difficulties, says the former reunification minister Lee Hong-Koo. "On the one hand they have defected so in some sense they are welcome as people who stand on the side of democracy and open society and against the North Korean system. But on the other, they are strangers to us, and there are some security concerns as well. They are looked on with some suspicion."

Those suspicions have deepened since a South Korean court sentenced Won Jeong Hwa to five years last month for spying for the North – the second spy jailed in a decade. Won, who reportedly set honey traps for military and intelligence officers, had also come to Seoul in 2001, falsely claiming asylum. Such tales add to the stereotypes of North Koreans, says Choi. "Because of a few bad people the whole image of the country is so bad."

Tall for a Korean girl at 5ft 7in, and strong and resilient after training in Pyongyang most days from six in the morning till eight at night, Choi has helped rally her depressed family with her boxing feats. It is her way, she says, of showing them that they made the right decision to come to Seoul. "I want to give something back to them." She won five domestic competitions and lost just once in 17 fights before turning professional last year, helping to resurrect a declining sport in the process. Promoters bill her as Choi Hyun-mi the "Defector Girl Boxer".

Since winning the world championship, she commands about £4,300 a fight but victory has been a mixed blessing. "There is so much interest from the media that I can't train anymore," she laments. Journalists inevitably ask about her Pyongyang background, and her loyalties, a question that visibly irritates her. "I want people to know who I am," she sighs. "Being from North Korea helps them remember me, but I'm not representing North Korea. I came to the South to fight for myself and my dreams, and for my family."

Ms Choi, who studies in a Seoul secondary school and is preparing for the defence of her title against what may be a Japanese opponent, says she does not think about the politics of her situation. "I just focus on myself, my body and my skills."

Endless media references to Million Dollar Baby sent her to the video store recently to rent the film. She hated it. "The film was very dark and I didn't like the ending," she says. "It should have been more glorious."