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Hwangbo turns ambassador after North Korea escape

by Tal Pinchevsky

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, generally known throughout the world as North Korea, isn't a country where athletes typically get a chance to shine on the world stage.

Since arriving in South Korea via China at age 21, Hwangbo Young has become one of Asia's most successful and influential women's hockey players. (Photo: Getty Images)

The socialist republic holds elections but is considered one of the most ironclad dictatorships in the world. Known for its elaborate cult of personality, the country has been governed by a tyrannical family that entered its third generation with the inauguration of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in December 2011. The grandson of "Eternal President" and republic founder Kim il-Sung, and son of Kim Jong-il, who governed for 17 years before his death in 2011, Kim Jong-un established a precedent for his reign in December when, in what was termed a purge of "counterrevolutionary factionalists," he executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for treason.

But there are some stories of hope, stories of people who managed to flee the country and make new lives for themselves. Hwangbo Young is one of those stories.

Since arriving in South Korea via China at age 21, Young has become one of Asia's most successful and influential women's hockey players. Hers is a story that doesn't get told often in a country where ice hockey is far from the most popular sport. But with the 2018 Winter Olympics set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea is trying to expand the profile of the sport, which has become more popular over the past decade.

Young retired as a player in 2011 but remains one of South Korea's hockey ambassadors, especially considering what she went through to become her country's greatest female player.

This is her story.

"In South Korea, I am actively involved in championship games. I retired as a hockey player two years ago. Since then, I have coached ice hockey for boys in high school and college students. I also coach with handicapped children," Young told through an interpreter. "In South Korea, wherever I teach or coach, I am very well-recognized and well-known."

Growing up playing hockey in North Korea, it seemed unlikely Young would gain any kind of real recognition.

With most of the industries operated by the central government, North Koreans lack many basic needs. Amnesty International reported in 2010 that most North Korean hospitals were barely functional, failing to provide sterilized needles, clean water, medicine and anesthesia. In November, the World Food Program reported malnutrition was so endemic in the country that many children were stunted due to a lack of vitamins, fat and protein in their diets.

Despite these domestic issues, North Korea remains one of the most heavily militarized nations in the world. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in a network of labor camps, according to Human Rights Watch.

For those who do manage to escape, a new life isn't always easy.

Recruited nationally at the age of 12, Young may be known as her country's greatest female hockey player. (Photo: Getty Images)

Young, for example, may be known as her country's greatest female hockey player. But there's another tag that has followed her since arriving in South Korea in 1999: former North Korean. With more than 8,000 North Korean defectors believed to be living in South Korea, there is a stigma attached to these refugees. That xenophobia has made adjusting to life in the country difficult, including at times for Hwangbo, whose name is incredibly unusual in South Korea.

Fortunately, the International Ice Hockey Federation doesn't care for such distinctions.

It was in IIHF tournaments that Young made her mark after becoming a part of the South Korean women's national team. She considers a win at the 2005 women's hockey world championship among the finest moments in her hockey career, not just because of the action on the ice.

"I remember this game in New Zealand. I had played in South Korea, but had never heard the national anthem [on that stage]," Young said. "At the end, the country that wins they play their anthem. That moment I waited for. In New Zealand, after the team won, when I heard the national anthem it was very touching and very emotional moment."

It allowed her to feel at home in her adopted homeland even though the event took place thousands of miles away. Touching as the moment was, it was even more unexpected.

Young never intended to gravitate toward hockey. Her mother had been an athlete, so she was encouraged to participate in sports as a child. It started with gymnastics, a popular sport in North Korea. The country's gymnastics team was banned from the 2012 London Olympics for age falsification, but North Korean gymnasts are a major part of the local culture. Thousands perform in complex routines at the annual Arirang Festival. The intricate routines pay tribute to Korean history while functioning as an over-the-top homage to the supreme leaders.

It appeared Young might have a future participating in these events. But a visit one day from the state-controlled athletic federation suddenly gave her a new path.

"When I was 12, the national ice hockey team coach actually stopped by my school to recruit youth ice hockey players. I was selected. That's when I started playing," Young said. "After I was recruited by the ice hockey youth team coach, I asked my mother for her permission, and my mother was concerned about hockey. It could be violent and physical. My mother at first didn't want me to play but after that was supportive."

Within a year, Young was excelling. One of the youngest players on a team that saw limited competition and never left the country, she was introduced to a tough training regimen that demonstrated the difficult living conditions facing many people in North Korea.

Young is retired as a player but still coaches handicapped children as well as high school and college students. "In South Korea, wherever I teach or coach, I am very well-recognized and well-known," she told (Photo: Getty Images)

"Every Thursday morning, we would run the 8-kilometer run, then we often went to the mountains and did running in the mountains. Sometimes we got some fruits in the trees while running. Most of the ice hockey players were teenagers, but they carried a 75-kilogram barbell [while running]. We had very hard training," Young said. "We had to pump the water out of the ground every day to shower. And there was only one shower, so men and women had to stand in line to take a shower in the one shower. The rest of the people pumped the water from under the ground so we can use the water. You cannot imagine how convenient it is here. People take showers with hot water whenever they want."

To call these conditions spartan would be polite. The national hockey program had so little access to even the most basic amenities players would sew up ripped-up underwear to get more use out of them.

Young admits her lifestyle in North Korea was pampered compared to many of her teammates. Her parents worked with the government and had access to things other citizens could only dream of. Most North Koreans could not own their own home, but Young's father didn't just own the family's house, he designed it himself. As her training with the national hockey program continued, it further dawned on Young how lucky she was compared to most North Koreans.

That's why she was so surprised when her parents informed her that they, along with her two brothers and two sisters, would risk their lives to defect. To not arouse suspicion, they didn't bother trying to sell their house and planned their escape to China as intricately as possible. If they were successful leaving North Korea, they would start a new life in a new country. If they failed, they would most likely be sent to the labor camps.

Thanks to a connection within the North Korean government and some coordination with a couple of sympathetic border guards, the family took a small boat across the Tumen River and settled in China. Having just finished high school, Hwangbo was starting a new life in a new country. For the time being, hockey was an afterthought. A year-and-a-half later, the family resettled in South Korea, where they met up with family Hwangbo had barely known. It was after resettling in Seoul that a complicated family history came full circle.

"My grandfather on my mother's side used to be a hostage in North Korea. Originally my blood is South Korean, but my grandfather was a hostage in North Korea and killed in North Korea. There's a certain place we honor the soldiers in Seoul. My grandfather's tomb is there," Young said. "My father found his relatives in South Korea and they helped to bring all of my family there."

Young intended to spend the rest of her life in China. But with her arrival in South Korea, she was able to restart her hockey career. It wasn’t long before she became the star of a developing South Korean women’s program.

The team's first major international appearance came in Maribor, Slovenia at the 2004 Division III IIHF Women's World Championship. Cast in the international spotlight for the first time, the South Korean women were overwhelmed, losing all five games by a combined score of 30-7 and being relegated to the IIHF’s bottom division. But if there was one bright spot for the South Koreans, it was Young, who scored two of its seven goals to tie for the tournament lead among defensemen.

It was the following year at the Division IV championship in Dunedin, New Zealand, the tournament Young recalls so vividly, that the captain of South Korea’s women’s team established herself as a force in her country. Having moved to forward, she led the tournament with eight goals (the next highest total was three). More importantly, Young enjoyed her first win at an international tournament, an emphatic 8-2 victory against Iceland in which she had four goals and two assists. South Korea went undefeated in the four-nation tournament to earn its place back in Division III. And for the first time, Young got to hear her national anthem after a win on the international stage.

Establishing herself as an elite player in Asia had not come easy.

With little income from hockey, Young spent her days as a dental technician in Seoul. Between work and hockey training, the hours were long. But she had a gratifying new life.

"I work full time as a dental technician. I take off from my work at 6 p.m. and then go to practice," said Young, who remains active in coaching and even has worked as an official at IIHF events in Asia. "That's my daily schedule."

Some NHL players, including Stanley Cup winner Ric Jackman, have continued their careers in South Korea. (Photo: Anyang Halla)

Young's role with an improving national team only expanded. No longer was she simply a top player in her region and a growing ambassador for her sport. As captain, she was now the leader of a roster of young women who, like her, were hoping to find success in the international forum while also working day jobs to earn an income. When her teammates needed money, she gave it to them. When they needed a shoulder to cry on and vent frustrations, she was there. Anything she could do to help her teammates, she did. That role on and off the ice soon earned her an endearing nickname: mother.

"I had a really big heart for my teammates. Even before I became the national captain, I was always there for my teammates," Young said. "My teammates complained the cafeteria food was terrible, so I prepared breakfast. I woke up at 5 a.m. before practice started at 6 and prepared breakfast and fed them."

Young's vocal protests against the lesser treatment paid to women’s teams eventually led to an upgrade in the accommodations provided by the South Korean governing sports body. And Young and the team were improving too.

Back in Division III for the 2007 Worlds in Great Britain, Young finished tied for second in the tournament with seven goals in five games. She led her country to its first win in the Division III tournament, an 8-1 victory against South Africa in which she again had four goals and two assists. The South Korean women's team enjoyed another Division III win the following year, a 3-2 victory against Croatia in which Young scored the winning goal in the shootout.

In five years, the North Korean defector had rallied her team and helped the South Korean women's program elevate to a level it had never seen. But her biggest challenge would come when she met her former North Korean teammates at regional tournaments. Young never expected to leave North Korea, so unresolved feelings would bubble up when she came face to face with her old friends. But engaging them simply wasn't possible.

The North Korean women's team was subjected to severe scrutiny under the Kim government. They didn't make many trips abroad, and when they did they were tailed by a government escort. If a player attempted to defect, her family could end up in the labor camps. The slightest infraction of team rules could have devastating results. Those rules included being seen with defectors like Hwangbo. It was a difficult situation she struggles with today.

"I tried to be nice to them, they are her friends and colleagues there. I remember one of my [former North Korea] teammates, it was her birthday. So I prepared a birthday gift for her. I bought some underwear and a ring and a watch for my friends. I really wanted to give those birthday gifts to my friends," Young said. "There was no way I could hand the gifts to my friends. So I eventually dropped off the gifts to a restaurant owner at the hotel and prepared a cake with the gifts. I wanted the restaurant owner to prepare a birthday party for my friends."

After playing against her old friends in the Asian Games, Hwangbo attempted to enjoy a momentary reunion on the ice. But when she waved in an attempt to renew acquaintances, there was no response.

With the 2018 Winter Olympics set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea is trying to expand the profile of the sport, which has become more popular over the past decade. After a long and difficult journey, Young has assumed the role of ambassador for South Korean hockey. (Photo: Getty Images)

"I broke down and cried on the ice. It's still painful to remember. It broke my heart. They ignored me. They called me a defector," Young said. "I was really concerned about their situation. What if I approached them to talk? I would be OK, but they would get punished after returning to North Korea. Although they ignored me in person, I in a way understood what was happening. I used to be on that team, they used to be my team members."

Young retired as a player in 2011, a decision inspired by differences with South Korean hockey’s governing body and one she admits she occasionally regrets. More than anything, her sudden departure from the game she had helped build in her adopted homeland was difficult to get used to. During her painful transition to life in South Korea, hockey filled a huge void.

"After I retired, I was very depressed. Every day around 6 p.m., I felt like I have to go and practice and then realized, 'Oh, I retired, there is no more practice.' That's why I started drinking, just to forget about ice hockey," Young said. "I was hired as a referee, so I emotionally got recovered. I got better. Am I considering to go back and play again? No. I'm hoping the next generation will play after me."

So the woman once considered the mother of the South Korean women's team is now trying to assume the role of mother to all of South Korean hockey. It's a prominent position in a country hoping to build up its hockey program in time for the 2018 Winter Games, and a surprising path for a woman who experienced tough times under a dictatorship before finding her calling in a new land full of freedom and opportunity.

"I am very thankful. When I defected to South Korea I was with my family. My story is nothing compared to other North Koreans who defected without their families, " Young said. "It was meant to be. I feel like this is my destiny, to play ice hockey."


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