Defector ice hockey star torn ahead of Korean face off

Hwang Sunghee
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Ice hockey player Hwangbo Young was excited at the prospect of meeting her former North Korean teammates when they played her adopted homeland of South Korea, but she was called a traitor and her offers to shake hands were snubbed

When the North and South Korean women's hockey teams clash in a rare match this week, defector-turned-star-player Hwangbo Young will cheer for the country that has labelled her a traitor.

The two Koreas are due to face off during the women's world ice hockey championships division II group A game being held in the South's eastern city of Gangneung Thursday.

The meeting will be heavy with symbolism for the 37-year-old North Korean defector who competed in the first North-South women's ice hockey showdown in 2003 as a South Korean.

Hwangbo started playing hockey at age 12 after she was recruited by a coach from the national team. She made the squad a few years later.

But when she turned 18, Hwangbo, along with her parents and four siblings, made the harrowing journey across the Tumen River in a cramped boat to China before eventually settling in South Korea.

Once in the South she figured she would never play hockey with her old teammates again or even see their faces.

But a chance for a reunion on the ice came at the 2003 Aomori Asian Games.

"I couldn't even sleep from excitement," said Hwangbo, who played for South Korea after fleeing from her homeland in 1999.

She quickly got her hands on the roster of North Korean players playing in the game and found a handful of names she recognised.

"It was more than just a match to me. It was the first time in seven years to see my friends," Hwangbo told AFP.

- 'Traitor' -

Once on the ice Hwangbo's hopes for a warm reunion were quickly dashed.

Her old teammates violently checked her against the boards and called her a "traitor" throughout the game.

When she approached them for a handshake after the South suffered a humiliating 10-0 loss, she was assailed with more insults.

"I broke down and cried. I was sure they would be happy to see me," recalled Hwangbo.

Although initially hurt Hwangbo says she now understands her friends' hostility, since breaking the ice with her could have resulted in harsh punishments back home.

More than 900 North Korean women are registered as professional hockey players, nearly four times that of the South, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

But Hwangbo says the lack of resources in the impoverished state made for spartan training.

"The ice rink opened only for official games, so for training, we had to freeze up a field by hosing it with water," she said.

- Team captain -

In her adopted country, Hwangbo is credited with improving women's ice hockey with South Korea currently ranked 23rd globally.

She led the team to its first international victory at the 2005 world championships -- a 8-2 win against Iceland in which she scored four goals -- and was named the team captain shortly after.

Hwangbo's unlikely rise from defector to sporting icon was later portrayed in the movie "Run-Off 2" released last year.

Since retiring in 2011 Hwangbo has dabbled in coaching children and a sledge hockey team and jokes that she "no longer pays attention to women's hockey games".

Unless of course, it involves her native North Korea.

"I will go to Gangneung on the game day, quietly without drawing attention," said Hwangbo.

After a long pause, she added: "I think I will cheer for the North Korean team."