Interview: Super Featherweight World Champion, Boxer Choi Hyon-Mi
Hyon-Mi Choi holds the title of ‘first North Korean women boxer’ Super Featherweight World Champion. She says that more than becoming the champion, the difficult task is to maintain this title. On May 23rd, the WBA Super Featherweight World Title Match will be held in the Mungyeong City Gym, North Gyeongsang Province, where she will defend her title for the second time. New Focus interviews Hyun-Mi Choi ahead of the competition.
Was there a special motivation for defecting from North Korea?
I defected from North Korea in 2004. There was no particular motive. My father said he was going traveling, so I followed. After we arrived in Vietnam my father told me we were escaping to South Korea. When I look back now, Pyongyang was a place with no individual hopes or dreams.
What is the reason you started boxing?
Coincidence. I got casted on the streets when I was 11 years old. The casting person watched me run in the schoolyard and asked whether I had any interest in starting boxing as a sport. People around me discouraged me, as they could not understand why a female would want to box. But I think I had a talent and interest in sports. When I was younger, I always preferred ‘boyish’ things. When I lived in North Korea, I enjoyed playing with wooden swords rather than dolls.
What is sport like in North Korea?
North Korea is an economically disadvantaged country. The training facilities are poor, and the diet of North Korean players do not measure up to the standards of South Korea. Directors and coaches only place an emphasis on the results of the game, not on the physical condition of the players. The sports players focus for the match relying on mental strength and energy.
What is the difference between sport and lifestyle in North and South Korea?
Compared with the North, South Korean players have better training conditions. Even so, after being admitted into boxing, they seem to give up too easily. The North Korean players focus on the match by thinking, ‘If I lose here, I have nowhere else to go’. Because this is the reality. The North Korean government places special emphasis on strengthening the mentality of people. This attitude and mindset helps me immensely when I am boxing. Due to this, I have greater confidence than others, especially when it comes to strong mentality and willpower.
How is your new life in South Korea?
I am happy I have become a champion but there are tough moments. One of the most difficult is that I have no sponsor. I have confidence in my ability when I go into matches, but there is still a financial burden. I want to represent the Republic of Korea in games hosted abroad, but again, the finances remain a problem.
If the champion does not defend their title in 9 months, the WBA’s rules state that the player must be disqualified. Each time you enter a match the required money is over 100 million won, so my father goes around asking for sponsorship. I have been maintaining my championship title so far, but I cannot help but worry about the future.
Sponsors feel uneasy with the fact that I am a ‘North Korean Defector Boxer’. It seems they focus more on the ‘defector’ part rather than the value of being a ‘WBA World Champion’. I want to erase the image of being a defector boxer and fight as a ‘Republic of Korea Boxer’. For this to become a reality, I will continue to strive for the best.
WBA Super Featherweight Secondary Defending Championship is coming up. It is a Korea vs Japan Match. How do you feel about it?
This match is the second world title match for the WBA Super Featherweight. It commences at Mungyeong Gym on the 23rd May Saturday at 12pm.
This is the third Korea-Japan match. I will strive for sportsmanship and fair play. I am more excited that it is against Japan, the cheering between the countries will be fierce. I am going to play with that mentality where I think, ‘If I lose this match, I will have to retire’. That’s what this upcoming Korea-Japan match means to me.
You are attending graduate school at the moment. How is it?
Korea University offers a Masters Degree in Sports Instruction. After this I want to become the leader of the first generation of women’s boxing in Korea. I want to undertake the challenge of becoming a women’s boxing coach, and become an international referee.
Any last words?
Instead of a ‘Defector Boxer’, I want to be known and accepted as a ‘Republic of Korea Boxer’. Although I started boxing while living in North Korea, I am now a proud ‘Republic of Korea Boxer’. I want to overcome the prejudices of being a North Korean refugee.
Throughout the interview, Hyon-Mi Choi maintained a sunny disposition and did not stop smiling. She was not just a competitor in a ring, but also a woman pursuing her dream. Even though she had worn the South Korean National Flag many times, she still worried about gaining sponsorship.
Nevertheless Hyon-Mi Choi says, “Achieving my dreams is not only achieving the dreams of North Korean escapees but also now achieving the dreams of the Republic of Korea.”
Reporting by Lee, Cheol-Mu.
Translated by Susie Lee.
Read in Korean.