SEOUL: In a gym on the top floor of a five-story building with no elevator, in a ring with an uneven and patched canvas and strung with laundry, a 17-year-old girl who had never heard of Muhammad Ali until four years ago shadowboxes against an imaginary opponent.
On a wall, a framed motto exhorts: "Today sweat, Tomorrow champion!" But what really drives Choi Hyun Mi is not the former boxing champions gazing down at her from faded photos on the wall. Rather, it is the thought of how her father abandoned a privileged position in North Korea and risked his life to give his talented daughter the freedom to pursue her dream in South Korea.
It is also the image of her mother praying and weeping from the ringside on Oct. 11, as Choi slugged it out with Xu Chunnyan of China and won the World Boxing Association women's featherweight championship.
Even before Choi won the title, news media here had noted her unusual background, dubbing her a "Million Dollar Baby," after the 2004 Clint Eastwood film about a determined young female boxer.
Choi says her fighting career has barely begun.
"When I returned to my corner between rounds of my championship bout, I glimpsed down at my mother sobbing," Choi said. "My parents gave up everything in North Korea to give their children a better life in the South.
"I fight for fame and success," she said. "Boxing is my way to prove that my parents made the right decision."
Choi's family fled to the capitalist South in 2004. After entering amateur contests in 2006, she swept five domestic championships in South Korea, suffering only one defeat and winning the rest of her 17 fights. In September 2007 she turned pro.
It was government scouts in North Korea who first detected Choi's potential. Choi, now 1.7 meters, or 5 feet 7 inches, tall, was almost a head taller than her peers in the malnourished country, and faster than anyone else in her school in Pyongyang. One day, she was approached by the head coach of the prestigious Kim Chul Joo Educational University, in Pyongyang.
There, the government trained Choi and 19 other girls for the possibility of competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, encouraging them with special food rations and a promise to reward a gold medal with a seat in Parliament. (In the end, the International Olympic Committee decided it was too early to admit women's boxing as an Olympic sport.)
At 13, she was the youngest but one of the toughest. From an early age, her parents said, Choi was a terror in her neighborhood.
Once, she chased a boy who had beaten up her older brother to his home and challenged him to a fight. Her stunned father bought her an accordion, hoping to divert her energies into music.
But "sitting with a musical instrument was not my style," she said.
Choi is now a senior at Seoul's Yeomgwang High School, which allows her to skip classes when she's training for a fight. Last week, she returned to her gym after recuperating from the championship bout. She wore oversized sunglasses on the street to hide her black eyes and swollen face. Her arms still bore bruises.
"Why do I box? Boxing makes you curvy," she said, striking a pose with a giggle. "I want to be a pretty girl who does pretty boxing.
"But in this sport, you do take some punches."
Choi has shed any trace of a North Korean accent, a low-status marker that often holds back the thousands of North Korean defectors who are struggling to eke out a living in the South. During the interview at the gym, her cellphone constantly vibrated with incoming text messages. At school, her championship has made her a celebrity, with students who have never talked to her before clamoring for her autograph.
South Korea has only 50 professional female boxers, and most say they first took up the sport to lose weight or improve their looks. But Choi is different: She boxes to support her family. Her parents have been unable to find work in South Korea, and her brother is in college.
Despite the little-girl bangs and smiles that give her the look of what she calls "a happy acorn," once in the ring, she turns into what her coach, Kim Han Sang, calls "a hungry fighter like the kind we used to have in Korea, unlike those girls who box as a hobby."
"I think I can make her into a million-dollar boxer," said Kim, a retired marine and former boxer.
In a country where boxing's popularity has been in steep decline and few people know that South Korea has five reigning female world boxing champions, Choi's background is one of her biggest selling points. Posters bill her as the "Defector Girl Boxer."
Her family had lived a life of relative comfort in North Korea. Her father traveled overseas for his state-owned company, which exported zinc to China and sea urchins to Japan. The family's apartment was stocked with Japanese appliances.
"I dressed my children in nothing but Japanese clothes," said her father, Choi Chul Soo, a name he adopted in the South. "But in North Korea, even if you were rich, you were always under surveillance. People disappeared."
While on a business trip in China in 2004, Choi's father sent for his family and bribed border guards to ensure their safe crossing. From China, they were smuggled into Vietnam, where they spent four months living in hiding in hotel rooms, before they were flown to Seoul.
There, they live in a rented apartment half the size of the one they had in Pyongyang. Choi's father found himself jobless in South Korea, dependent on government subsidies for North Korean defectors. His heart sank further when his efforts to smuggle out his mother went awry.
She was caught by the Chinese police and returned to the North, he said, where she was sent to a labor camp.
"I sometimes miss my life in North Korea and wonder whether I made a right choice," the father said with a sigh.
In Seoul, Choi had to unlearn her North Korean boxing vocabulary. South Korea uses English words like "hook" and "KO." She no longer trains under portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Here, she works out to the rhythm of American hip-hop music.
Choi suffered her first setback when her dream of representing her new home in the 2008 Olympics crumbled. She turned pro. But for almost a year, she was kept out of the ring in a legal dispute with her old manager.
Kim, the coach, said Choi must soon resume her three-times-a-day training routine to prepare to defend her title in December. She needs to hone a knockout power punch, Kim said.
As a champion, Choi can earn about $10,000 per fight, much less than men receive. She then shares the money with her manager and coaching staff. She has yet to win any commercial endorsements.
Choi said she wanted to sweep all the world titles in her weight division and then get into the country's entertainment industry, where a few former athletes have proved hugely successful. To achieve that, she said, she needs to become as famous as Laila Ali, the boxing-star daughter of Muhammad Ali.
She raised her white boxing glove. "I'm going to make everyone recognize my name," she said.
6 months ago