SEOUL, South Korea – In a frigid basement gym reeking of sweat, 14-year-old Choi Hyun Mi hammers a punching bag with ferocious three-punch combinations, her rosy-cheeked face burning with the intensity of an Olympic (search) dreamer.
Her talent was discovered in North Korea (search), her country of birth, where she was identified at age 11 as a top athlete and given special training and food rations. She fled with her family last year and is back in training, hoping to represent her new home country in the ring.
Choi's family lived a privileged life in North Korea; her father was allowed to travel to China to negotiate export deals for the seafood company where he worked. But in South Korea (search), Choi's parents are unemployed. They rely on the kindness of their daughter's trainers.
It would be a stretch to call her Korea's equivalent of the "Million Dollar Baby" in the Oscar-winning film, but her trainers are excited enough about her prospects to be offering their services free.
Choi's father said the decision to defect stemmed from the pressure of being under constant surveillance as a member of the North Korean elite.
"The government watches you and controls you because you have money," he said, speaking on condition his name not be used for fears of repercussions against family still in the North. Other relatives have tried to join them, and his 70-year-old mother is in jail after being arrested in China and sent home for attempting to escape.
Choi said she was walking with friends on a street in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, when a boxing trainer spotted her and saw the makings of a fighter.
Her parents were at first opposed — her mother wanted her to take up art or music. But the trainer kept coming to their house and urging Choi to sign up, so she left her ordinary schoolgirl life for the privileged world of North Korea's top athletes.
Choi's parents said their daughter told them she wanted to make it to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing because "I want to make Kim Jong Il happy," referring to the North Korean leader.
North Korea relies on outside aid to feed its people, and Choi's parents said adults receive daily rations of about 25 ounces that actually end up at 18 ounces after what they called "taxes."
As a potential star athlete, Choi was guaranteed the full 25-ounce ration along with meat and cooking oil, as well as all the clothes and equipment she needed.
It wasn't easy, though: She would wake up at 5 a.m. six days a week for a 5-mile run, then take classes and train from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. After dinner she would have another hour of training. She saw her parents on Sundays only.
Choi's father was on a business trip in China when he sent for his family to meet him at the Tumen River bordering North Korea. He paid $1,800 worth of bribes to North Korean and Chinese border guards to let them cross in March 2004.
From there, they traveled to Vietnam, then on to South Korea where they spent several months in a facility that teaches defectors to adjust to South Korea's democratic consumer society.
An organization that works with defectors put Choi in touch with Chang Jung-koo, South Korea's most famous boxer, who held a WBC junior flyweight title for five years in the 1980s.
"She has strong fundamentals," he said. "She was trained when she was little and likes to fight."
He criticized the North Korean training as only focusing on exercise, changed Choi's diet and applied new sports technology.
Now Choi trains only an hour a day, bobbing and weaving to the beat of Korean and American pop music. She wears a plastic suit to help her sweat off weight to compete in the 139- to 143-pound division. She also has had to learn new boxing vocabulary: South Korea uses English words like "jab," while North Korea sticks with the pure Korean variants.
She goes to school and is home every day now.
Women's boxing will be an exhibition sport at the 2008 Olympics, although Chang said efforts are under way to make it an official event. Choi is too young to have fought any bouts but is set to start fighting in student competitions this year.
"She's not afraid of getting punched," said another of Choi's trainers, Lee Yong-hun. "Of course, she can make it to the Olympics."
Vending Machines Cater to N.Y. Pooches
In other news, New Yorkers walking their dogs now have an easy way to give their pooch a treat.
Quarter vending machines are dispensing dog biscuits.
There are about 20 machines in Manhattan. Entrepreneur Brad Wilkinson, who thought of the idea, tells the Daily News he has plans for another 50 machines this year.
The quarter vending machines are placed in stores, and the owner shares in the profits.
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