SEOUL (Reuters) - Choi Huyn-mi traded an accordion for boxing gloves, Kim Jong-il’s cult leadership for capitalism, and the red bandanas worn by North Korean school children for the World Boxing Association championship belt.
Choi is a teenager with a penchant for pink, fingers that fly over a mobile phone to send text messages and a thundering right that sent Japanese challenger Tsubasa Tenku to the canvas twice a week ago when she defended her WBA featherweight crown.
“I have gotten quite good at putting on make-up to cover swelling over my eyes,” Choi, 19, said in an interview with Reuters a few days after her win by unanimous decision.
Possessing the power and speed to overwhelm an opponent and a ruthless streak in the ring, Choi is known as the “Defector Boxer Girl” in South Korea, where she is a new hope for a declining sport in the country that was known for producing scrappy and fearless fighters who steadily climbed the world rankings.
“I don’t mind that nickname, but I want to be known for my boxing more than the fact that I defected from North Korea.”
With a compelling story that includes a high-risk escape from North Korea, Choi’s tough, girlish and endearing character has helped make her a budding media sensation in South Korea.
The 170 cms (5 ft, 7 inches) tall Choi grew up in what would qualify for an affluent family in impoverished North Korea. Being taller than her peers she was attracted to sports and dabbled in boxing.
“I bought her a wonderful accordion to keep her out of trouble but she gave it up for boxing,” said her father Choi Young-choon, who used to work for a trading company in North Korea that exported minerals such as zinc and copper.
His business took him to China and it was during one of those trips that he defected. He bribed border guards to allow his wife, daughter and son to cross into China too and join him in the escape to the South, local media said.
The family made its way to Vietnam and came to the South in 2004 with more than 400 other defectors in what was the single largest group of North Koreans to arrive in the country.
Choi struggled in the South to find a job while Hyun-mi went to a high school for promising athletes, made it to a boxing gym and thrived in the ring, going 17-1 as an amateur.
“It was a burst of freedom that felt like my heart exploded when I finally came to South Korea,” Hyun-mi said with a faint North Korean accent, the only thing that makes her stand out from other South Korean teens.
“I only knew about South Korea from what I had seen from smuggled TV dramas, so I thought everyone was rich and had a swimming pool.
“I was shocked by just how small our apartment here was.”
Choi’s professional career got off to a shaky start due to a contract dispute that temporarily kept her out of the ring.
S.H. Yoon, a dean of the College of Sport Science at Sungkyunkwan University stepped in to help sort out the dispute and to bring her to the school in Seoul, where she will enrol next March.
Her father, who spent some time in the ring in North Korea, is now her manager and in her corner for fights. Her mother was at ringside in Oct. 2008 when Choi won the WBA title.
Choi, a fan of Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao, has also been dubbed South Korea’s “Million Dollar Baby” after the 2004 Clint Eastwood movie about a women boxer.
“I rushed out to see it. I just couldn’t wait. But I was so disappointed by the sad way it finished,” said Choi.
“I want everything to have a happy ending.”
Additional reporting by Christine Kim