For the thousands of North Korean defectors living in hardship around the world, champion boxer Choi Hyun-mi has become their Mohammad Ali. Choi, 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.
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.”
Like other North Koreans who arrive in the highly unfamiliar South, Choi and her family faced adversity. Her father couldn’t find a job, and her mother often wept for their relatives who remained in the repressive North.
The 20,000 or so defectors living in South Korea often struggle to adapt to life here. The government offers a two- or three-month cultural adjustment program, but in a 2006 survey, more than half of defectors said they were unemployed and felt “discriminated against.”
Yoon In-jin , a sociologist at Korea University explains, “The deteriorating relationship [between North and South] makes many South Koreans feel less generous and tolerant, and this has made public opinion worse towards defectors.”