Choi Hyun Mi gathered with 17 other South Korean citizens on the evening of Feb. 24 as a full moon rose above Seoul. President Park Geun Hye chose the 22-year-old woman along with the others to celebrate the start of her five years as the nation’s 11th president. At midnight, as Park’s term began, they rang the iconic Bosingak bell.
For Choi, better known as “Defector Girl Boxer,” it was another milestone in her family’s escape from North Korea in 2004, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its July issue. Her father, Choi Young Choon, abandoned a successful trading business, a 330-square-meter (3,500-square-foot) house in the capital, Pyongyang, and a chauffeur-driven car to give Choi the freedom to pursue her talent.
Today, she’s the world’s top female featherweight boxer, claiming the World Boxing Association title in 2008 and defending it in seven matches, with one draw, since.
“I fight to win,” Choi says at a coffeehouse outside her Seoul apartment, the bruises on her face showing through makeup three days after she had beaten Australian Shannon O’Connell on May 8. “I’m going to be the greatest female boxer the world has ever seen.”
Most of the 25,000 defectors in South Korea are still battling for smaller victories. Unlike the Choi family, they flee famine and poverty, pushed to desperation as their children starve and loved ones die. They follow a perilous route through China, which considers them illegal immigrants, not refugees.
Women, who make up 70 percent of defectors, fall prey to traffickers, who sell them as wives to Chinese men. The North Koreans that China repatriates face torture and possible execution, according to human rights advocate North Korea Freedom Coalition in Fairfax, Virginia.
The issue of repatriation drew international attention at the end of May. A human rights investigator for the United Nations said he was extremely concerned for the protection of nine North Korean defectors, whom he described as mostly minors and reportedly all orphans. Authorities believe they were sent back to China on May 27 from Laos. He urged China not to repatriate them to North Korea and appealed to authorities in Pyongyang to give the group access to an independent adviser should they be returned.
“I have very real concerns about the penalties and treatment they could face,” Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said in a May 30 statement.
Ever since the Korean War ended in 1953, the South’s leaders have pledged to one day reunite with the North.
While politicians may debate the best approach -- from the so-called Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung, who served as president from 1998 to 2003, to the hard line of Lee Myung Bak from 2008 to February 2013 -- interviews with defectors show how difficult integration will be in human terms, if and when it happens.
Defectors arrive in the South unprepared to compete among upwardly mobile and generally dismissive South Koreans.
Poor, undereducated and often traumatized by abuse, North Koreans in the South struggled with 19.9 percent unemployment in 2012, compared with 2.9 percent for South Koreans, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights reports. Defectors commit suicide at more than double the already high rate of 34 deaths per 100,000 for South Koreans.
Choi Kum Hee, 30, who began a journey south in 1997 that lasted four years, says that when she arrived, her new countrymen mocked her accent and asked whether she had ever eaten human flesh. She lied to cover her past, saying she was from South Korea’s northern province of Gangwon.
“How are we going to manage reunification if we can’t integrate 25,000 people?” asks John Linton, a doctor who was born in South Korea to American parents. He has visited North Korea 27 times to treat tuberculosis with his elder brother, Stephen Linton, who heads the Eugene Bell Foundation.
Newly arrived North Koreans get their official introduction to Southern life at a government-run center called Hanawon that opened in 1999 outside Seoul. For three months, they learn practical skills -- from using credit cards to mastering the often novel experience of driving.
On this sunny May day, red and pink azaleas are in full bloom. Inside red-brick buildings, 241 defectors are in classes, learning baking and hair cutting.
The center has a medical clinic, a dentist’s office with seven chairs, computer rooms and counselors for women traumatized by sexual exploitation. On this day, three teachers are watching over 11 children under age 4 who are taking a nap.
The peaceful scene belies the chaos defectors encounter in their journeys south.
Song Byeok, 44, an artist who made his living painting propaganda posters for dictator Kim Jong Il, got his first taste of the Northern regime’s brutality when famine struck.
In search of food, Song and his father tried to swim to China across the Tumen River in August 2000. A current trapped his father. Song swam back to shore and pleaded with North Korean guards for help. They beat him, banged his head against a wall and left his father to drown.
Song was interred in a labor camp in Chongjin, where, after three months, he became too weak to work.
He weighed less than 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and was near death when the camp administrator inexplicably gave him three packets of sugar and freed him. Song recovered near Pyongyang, where a doctor amputated his infected right index finger.
Song set out again two months later. To avoid suspicion from North Korean guards, he stripped down to his underwear and pretended to be fishing with small children.
When the coast was clear, he successfully swam to China. He hid until dark and then went to a nearby village, where a Korean-Chinese Christian family sheltered him.
Song employed more subterfuge to get from China to South Korea. A North Korean friend had given him detailed information about the friend’s own relatives in the South.
Song wrote to his friend’s family, pretending to be the friend. The relatives flew to China and paid for his flight to Seoul. Once there, he revealed his true identity and apologized.
“It was a terrible thing that I did,” he says. “I promised them that one day I’ll make them feel proud of rescuing my life.”
Three years later, Song learned through letters and phone calls that his mother and a sister had starved to death in the North.
“The saddest thing in the world is dying of hunger,” says Song, whose black-framed glasses give him an intellectual look. “No one in the world should be this helpless.”
Today, Song’s pop-art paintings lampoon North Korea’s leaders with images such as Kim Jong Il dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
Among defectors to the South, there exists a subset whose stories have an added traumatic twist.
These people were born in the South and then kidnapped and spirited across the border by agents from the North. Some of them managed years later to escape back to the South.
Choi Wook Il was 35 in August 1975 when North Koreans patrolling in a gunboat kidnapped him and 32 other South Korean fishermen. Authorities sent him to a farm commune. Convinced he’d never see South Korea again, he and a North Korean woman started a family.
Yet he could never erase his final memory of the South. As he was leaving for the ill-fated fishing trip, his 5-year-old daughter asked him for a piece of candy. He said no.
“I should have bought her that candy,” Choi, now 73, says as tears fill his eyes. “I regretted it every day for 31 years.”
Choi fled North Korea in January 2007 with help from the Abductees’ Family Union. The group organized guides to shepherd his journey through China. He reunited joyfully with his South Korean family, three daughters and a son. He did buy a sweet for his second daughter, who was by then 36.
While Choi and his first wife now live in a government-funded apartment outside Seoul, he still can’t banish the guilt about leaving his second family in North Korea.
“When you are in the North, your mind is in the South,” he says. “When you are in the South, your mind is in the North.”
Choi Sung Yong, head of the group who helped the fisherman escape, says North Koreans kidnapped his own father in 1967. His late mother never gave up hope she would bring him home.
Sitting in his Seoul office, where faded photos of kidnap victims cover the walls, Choi, 62, takes out a red-silk pouch that holds his mother’s ashes.
“Her last wish was to be buried together with my father’s bones,” he says, breaking into tears. “That is my mission, and I won’t give up.”
Choi Kum Hee grew up in the North Korean coal-mining district of Aoji. In the 1990s, as neighbors starved to death one by one, Choi, then a teenager, and her family crossed the frozen Tumen River into China.
There, in a community of Korean-Chinese people, she discovered videos of South Korean hip-hop band H.O.T. and the TV series “Sandglass,” set in the 1980s, when pro-democracy unrest swept the country.
“It was mind-blowing,” she says. “We had to go and see it for ourselves.”
Their first attempt failed.
The family almost drowned three days after they left China in a small boat. Rescued by Chinese fishermen and sent back to China, they spent three years preparing to escape again.
This time, they were arrested in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) after taking a bus and a train and then hitchhiking and trudging through forests when money ran out.
Choi’s older sister, who had made it to Thailand, enlisted the South Korean embassy to arrange their release. They arrived in the South in April 2001.
Choi, who spent three months at Hanawon, says the South Korea she discovered wasn’t the glamorous land of celebrities she’d imagined from videos. Everyone woke up together, wore identical uniforms, exercised and attended classes.
She tried to get a part-time job at a restaurant, but the owner turned her down when he found out she was from the North.
“I decided to change myself rather than expecting others to change,” she says.
Choi graduated from Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and published “Kum Hee’s Journey,” a memoir, in 2007. An internship at Byucksan Engineering Co. became a full-time job in the firm’s strategy department. She married a South Korean man last year, and they plan to start a family soon.
“I am at peace with myself now,” says Choi, one of few North Korean defectors who have not changed their names after arriving in the South.
Lee Chul Man says he wouldn’t have made it in South Korea without mentor Park Sang Young.
Lee left North Korea’s North Hamkyong Province for China at age 19 in April 2008 so his mother could feed three other children and aid her ailing husband. He committed petty crimes in China to survive.
In 2009, Lee made his way to South Korea, where he was soon overwhelmed by his freedom and squandered his construction-job pay drinking and partying.
“I got completely lost,” he says.
Lee met Park, a former employee at Seoul’s Daishin Securities Co. who had left because he wanted more meaning in his life. Park started a school for defector teenagers.
“All of my students made their way to South Korea by themselves, alone,” Park says. “They’ve got scars, deep scars.”
Lee is working toward a license to drive forklifts.
“My dream is to live a content life, not chasing anything and not being chased, and to see my mother in North Korea one day,” he says. Lee’s father died last year.
Amid South Korea’s plenty, defectors say they remain plagued by insecurities and money woes.
Song, the former propaganda artist, held a show in Gangnam’s Garosu-gil Street in April. More people than usual visited the gallery amid North Korea’s heated rhetoric, but Song didn’t sell a single painting. In 2011 and 2012, he traveled to Washington and Atlanta and sold almost everything.
Boxing champ Choi struggles to attract a sponsor and says being a defector may be holding her back. She dreams of fighting in Las Vegas to gain global recognition.
“I am lucky to have lived in both Koreas,” she says. “But I know exactly where I want to go from here -- the world.”