SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – As a child in an authoritarian and socialist country, the athletic talent of Choi Hyunmi was spotted very early …
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – As a child in an authoritarian and socialist country, Choi Hyunmi’s athletic talent was spotted early and his progress accelerated by a coach eager to impress the leader of North Korea.
After putting the gloves away when her family defected to the South, it was boxing that helped her two years later after being discriminated against.
Almost two decades after fleeing North Korea at the age of 13, Choi is South Korea’s only world boxing champion. She has an ambition to unify her super featherweight division and step up to challenge Irish legend Katie Taylor, who is one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the women’s ranks.
Choi’s big push got off to a rocky start, when his scheduled unification bout with WBC title holder Terri Harper in May was called off due to the British boxer’s hand injury.
Yet what the undefeated WBA champion has already achieved makes her a great ambassador for North Korean defectors to South Korea.
“What I want now is to let the world know that there is Choi Hyunmi in the Republic of Korea,” Choi said in an interview with The Associated Press, referring to South Korea’s official name. “I might have a little basic mindset (endurance) in North Korea, but what made me who I am today is the Republic of Korea.”
Choi started boxing at age 11 when she lived in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. She said a school trainer noticed her athletic ability and told her parents she could become a boxer who “can delight General Kim Jong Il”, the late father of current leader Kim Jong. One. She then joined an elite youth boxing program preparing for the future Olympics.
But at the end of 2003, his family left North Korea because his father Choi Yeong-chun, who had worked for a state trading company, wanted a different life for his children. They moved to South Korea via Vietnam, only to face poverty and discrimination, like many other defectors whose qualifications in North Korea are largely unrecognized in the South.
Choi returned to boxing after a classmate insulted her North Korean origins following an accidental collision at school.
âShe cursed me and said, ‘You should have stayed in North Korea. Why did you come here and hit me? ‘ Choi said. âIt hurt me deeply. I couldn’t show my cool because I was in so much painâ¦ I stood helpless and didn’t go to school for a week.
Determined to no longer be disparaged, she chose boxing knowing it gave her a chance to build a successful professional career.
It was a wise choice.
She became a member of the South Korean national team in 2006 before turning pro and winning the vacant World Boxing Association featherweight crown in 2008. After defending the title seven times, Choi jumped into a division. weight and added the WBA super featherweight title to her collection in 2014. She has defended this title eight times.
But the sport’s waning popularity in South Korea has left Choi with a lack of sponsorships, to the point that she has even considered relinquishing her title. Choi’s father visited politicians and officials and wrote a letter to the presidential office asking for help.
âMy daughter trained so hard, but the fact that we lacked national sponsors was the most difficult thing we had to face,â he said.
Agents from the United States, Japan and Germany have been lobbying for Choi to be naturalized in those countries. But the 30-year-old boxer said she rejected the offers for two reasons: concerns about another difficult relocation and the immense pride she had in representing South Korea.
She remembered the “really tough time” she had initially had to settle in South Korea and wasn’t sure it would be any different elsewhere.
âMoreover, nothing can surpass the feeling and pride I felt when I had the taekukgi (the national flag) on ââmy chest as a member of the national team,â she said.
It is estimated that 34,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea in search of a better life, mostly in recent decades. But many have experienced economic hardship and discrimination in schools, workplaces and elsewhere. Some defectors even claim to be second or third class citizens.
Jeon Ju-myung, who heads an association for defectors in Seoul, said many defectors “are very proud of Choi” and his inspiring story “has absolutely had a positive impact on our relocation here.”
Choi, who appears on television shows occasionally, does not face the level of severe hardship that other defectors face. But she still doesn’t like the labels associated with her North Korean origin, such as “boxer defector” or “boxer defector,” which tend to precede her league title in media reports.
âI got to this point after crying and going through the hardships. But how can the word “defector” come before my league title? she said. “I am the proud world boxing champion of the Republic of Korea and I want the world to know it, but I feel so bad because (the defector’s label) eclipsed it.”
John Hwang, head of a Seoul-based boxing association, described Choi as South Korea’s all-time best boxer.
âShe’s very strong mentally, maybe because she risked her life to come to South Korea,â Hwang said. “Her professional perseverance is really good and she also has very good endurance.”
Now with an American boxing agency, Choi trains mainly in the United States, where she believes she could become “an even bigger boxer”.
Choi isn’t sure when his match with Harper can be rearranged. But she said that within three to five years, she intends to combine the WBA title with the other three major belts – WBC, IBF and WBO – in her division.
Then his end goal is to challenge Taylor.
âWin or lose, if I take the boxer I consider to be the best in the world, I’ll be happy with myself when I retire because I think I fought without any regrets,â Choi said. âThat’s why I would like to launch another challenge. “
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