Summer is in full force when I step into the gym sometime in mid-June. Scanning the perspiring faces around me as I get ready for the evening’s training session, my eyes stop on a new kid. Unlike the others, who are dressed comfortably in sleeveless cotton tops and Muay Thai trunks, the new boy is clad in a long-sleeved sweater and too-thick pants.
“That’s Han*,” Okbae whispers, coming up beside me. “Be gentle with him for now. He’s kind of … fragile.”
Throughout the training session that evening, I notice that Han keeps his head down most of the time, averts his gaze whenever he is spoken to, and makes little attempt to venture out of his little corner, where he seems comfortable with his little slice of mirror space.
Later that night, Okbae tells me that Han had come earlier in the day with his father to sign up at our gym. Dazzled and inspired by the kickboxing stars he had idolised on K1 and UFC TV programmes, Han had persuaded his father to allow him to attend Muay Thai lessons. His father had agreed without hesitation, because he wanted Han to build up self-confidence and assimilate better into South Korean society.
“We are defectors from North Korea, you see.” The older man had offered a self-explanatory answer that had tugged at Okbae’s heartstrings.
The issue of North Korean defectors remains a thorny one here in Seoul. Although refugees from the impoverished North have been arriving in droves for decades, their existence in the South is both an unspeakable taboo and an open secret.
Han has been in South Korea for 13 months. His father had arrived first, four years ago, seeking political asylum, and had sent for Han and his younger brother after settling down into life in Seoul. A harsh critic of the North Korean regime, Han’s father had worked covertly with his brother – Han’s uncle – to help North Korean refugees escape across the porous border with China before attempting his own flight to freedom.
Like many of his countrymen in the villages of North Korea, Han grew up experiencing extreme poverty and hardship. Famines and food shortages were common, and Han spent most of his time looking for mice and insects to catch and eat. Han says he used to enjoy swimming, but the sheer number of corpses in North Korea’s lakes and rivers marred his love for water for good.
“It is an easy way to dispose of the dead. They could be political prisoners, victims of the famine … anyone really. I often used to wonder when it would be my turn to float down the river next to our hut.”
In an ill-fated attempt at crossing the Yalu River (the water body that separates China and North Korea) one night, Han’s uncle was arrested and shot by North Korean border guards. Soon after, Han’s mother and remaining family members were ruthlessly shot by the North Korean authorities for “harbouring dissidents and aiding defectors.”
Han was spared because of his young age then, and he claims he has no memory of the traumatic purging of his family that happened right before his eyes. He was consequently sent to live with a distant relative, before his father orchestrated his successful escape through the villages of northern China, into the depths of Southeast Asian jungles, and finally a flight from Thailand to Seoul.
Although Han is 16 years old, he has been placed a grade lower in middle school because he is still struggling with English and Math, subjects which he had had little to no contact with back in North Korea. He also finds it a challenge to mix in with his schoolmates, as he finds their pastimes and frolicking frivolous and meaningless.
Han is one of those who works the hardest in the gym. He turns up without fail for at least a couple of hours daily, which is not an easy feat for a Korean student. On Fridays, when he is temporarily freed from the demands of homework, he comes in at 4pm and stays all the way till closing time at midnight.
Han barely spoke a word for the first two weeks he was at our gym. However, the familial support and friendships in a Muay Thai gym soon broke down the barriers that Han had constructed. To Han, the gym is a welcome refuge and respite. He says he has fun interacting with people of all ages, and especially enjoys sparring sessions with his close friends here. He calls some of them his “brothers.”He even has a “girlfriend” of sorts in the gym; Okbae smiles as he points out the two of them chatting shyly by the sandbags.
“I had been alone and lonely for most of my life. Here, for the first time, I realised that exercising together can be fun and liberating. Padwork for me was something new. I never knew you could have so much fun kicking and punching the mitts with a friend.”
We immediately noticed that Han is stronger – physically and mentally – than the other kids in our gym. His movements are fluid, and he is a natural fighter. Unlike his peers who give up easily at the first sign of fatigue or pain, Han gives his all. He is usually the only one who completes the assigned roadwork, and goes all out every time on the pads and heavy bags.
“From the age of five, I had worked in one of the farms owned by the North Korean regime. I remember harvesting corn, hauling stacks of produce around and bagging sweet potatoes. It was difficult back then, but now I think I was made to experience all those for a reason.”
Having lived in a state where his life was at stake daily, Han probably better understands the desperation, hard work and commitment necessary to conquer his circumstances. This is the mentality that will be greatly advantageous to Han in his future fights.
It is a little victory for us when Han forgoes his trademark sweater for a T-shirt for the first time in August. He tells us that he has finally mustered up enough confidence and courage to show the world what he has been hiding.
Han shows us the huge, thick scars that criss-cross in patches across his arms. He says there had been a fire in his home in North Korea shortly after his family was shot, and it had been “very painful.” He purses his lips and says he would not like to talk about the memory as it involves “bad men.” We respectfully leave it at that.
“I was embarrassed, and tried to hide behind my long-sleeved sweaters. But I think Muay Thai has helped heal me mentally. People are so kind and open here, and I think my injury doesn’t make me any different.”
As the weeks past, we see Han blossom. Once a painfully shy and quiet teenager, he is now confident enough to lead warm-ups, instruct newer members, and hold pads for his peers.
“They are all my friends,” Han says, gesturing happily at the other kids in the gym. I ask Han about his future plans.
“I want to be a Muay Thai champion for the Republic of Korea,” Han says shyly, a smile lifting the corners of his lips. The fact that he uses the official name for South Korea is telling. Han’s new life now allows him to plan far ahead into the future, a far cry from the past when survival was a daily struggle. He is preparing for his first fight in December, and is saving up for an overseas training trip.
“It is still surreal for me now. I used to literally fight for my life back then. I never imagined that I will have the chance to fight in a ring soon here in South Korea.”
*Name changed for safety and privacy reasons
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.