Skip to main content

Hwangbo Young teaches a hockey class for children at an ice rink in Seoul, April 4, 2017.

Rising through the isolated country's harsh athletic program, Hwangbo Young went on to play an instrumental role in building the South Korean team

The protesters stalking the unified Korean women's Olympic hockey games say it's unfair that politicians have displaced South Korean players to make way for North Koreans in the name of symbolic unity.

Largely forgotten in the controversy is the surprisingly pivotal role North Korea played in in the early development of women's hockey in South Korea.

In the 2000s, one of the most dominant players was born in North Korea, a woman groomed in the brutal conditions of that country's sporting program before she defected and became a star in the south.

Some have called her the mother of women's hockey here.

"A lot of people don't remember," Hwangbo Young said in an interview Monday, as she drove to watch the unified Korea team play Sweden. They lost 8-0 – but for Young, the score was less interesting than the three North Korean players on the ice, a tangible connection to her past.

Those players were still toddlers when Young and her family fled North Korea in 1997. But it's likely at least some of their experience mirrors Young's own rise through the isolated country's state-dominated athletic program, in conditions so austere that she split her own firewood and sewed her own underwear.

When Young was 11, she entered North Korea’s rigorous training program, which she calls both wickedly tough and ‘ignorant.’

Her mother was a rhythmic gymnast, but Young "had really strong, thick bones" and grew up loving ball sports – soccer, volleyball, basketball. She had never laced up skates, however, when coaches came to her middle school looking for talented athletes. They put her through a series of fitness-related tests – clenching fists and sprinting. She didn't realize what they were looking for until she was recruited.

"I didn't know what ice hockey was. I was just happy – I could play sports, leave home and live in a dormitory," she says.

Scholars say the Soviet-style selection process continues in North Korea today.

Young was 11 when she was selected and immediately entered the rigorous training program. Players woke at 5:30 a.m. and ran before breakfast and school. After lunch they resumed training. On weekdays, she might run six kilometres. On Saturdays, eight to 10 kilometres.

By the time she was 13, she was doing squats with 165-pound weights and 55-pound curls with "25 reps."

The program was both wickedly tough and "ignorant," Young said. "There was no consideration for age. Young kids did the same exercises as the adults. They might do a few less repetitions, but I felt like it actually inhibited growth. There was too much training."

After her family defected in 1997, Young was recruited by South Korea’s hockey team, which was in its infancy at the time.

Sunday was the only day without training. In her seven years in the North Korean sports program, Young can remember being given time off only for holidays, when she was injured and for a single week when she was the only person in the dormitory not to come down with the flu.

"Unless you were on your deathbed, you had to do the required training regimen every day," she said. She could go home on weekends, but otherwise could only leave "if someone passed away," she said. It was "like a prison without bars."

Coaches were demanding and prone to anger, but so were older players, who forced their juniors to do laundry, fetch water and do other errands. Senior players did, however, hand down patterns that could be used to sew their own undergarments from pieces of cloth.

The team had no access to artificial ice, so they practised on-ice strategy in the warm months by passing around a volleyball. In the winter, they flooded a field, cleared the snow with brooms and resurfaced the area using a "human Zamboni" – a rig outfitted with tanks of water and pulled by people.

Players split their own firewood and lit it themselves to provide under-floor heat, called ondol. They had nothing but an outhouse. In the cold, it grew so full of frozen excrement that "you almost had to poop standing up, or it would poke you," Young said. Athletes would occasionally be ordered to cut down the fetid pile as punishment.

Young looks at hockey sticks as she prepares for practice with South Korean teammates on March 13, 2006 in Seoul.

Without hot water, showering was best done immediately after training, when their bodies were still warm.

The hockey team had sufficient equipment, although it was well-worn, and Young is sanguine about the deprivations. She knew no other life. "I didn't think it was odd," she said. "I just trained hard because I was an athlete."

Young made the national team at 15. Normally, that would have entailed going to international tournaments, but while she was there the team did not travel outside the country. The reason, she says: "We performed so poorly the government didn't want to invest any money." North Korea at the time was also in the midst of a horrific famine.

Young's family, which was relatively wealthy and had connections in South Korea, fled in 1997. They all sneaked across the Tumen River into China before arriving in South Korea 18 months later.

Soon after, local hockey officials, knowing she had played in North Korea, asked her to join what was then a nascent South Korean team. "They asked me to try out, because there were no players," she said.

North Korean women at the time were far more accomplished hockey players, and Young played an instrumental role in building the South Korean team.

In her 11 years in uniform, South Korea entered its first International Ice Hockey Federation world championship and, though it remained fixed in the bottom-two lowest teams, racked up a few wins – thanks in no small part to Young's efforts.

Young practises with South Korean teammates on March 13, 2006 in Seoul.

In 2004, Young, on defence, scored three of South Korea's goals, although the team was outscored 30-7 in five games. The following year, relegated to the bottom division, the South Korean team won all three games. Young alone scored more goals than the opposing teams. In 2007, she scored more than half of South Korea's goals.

Twice in those years, she faced off against North Korea. Both times were painful. Former teammates shunned her and subjected her to extra violence on the ice.

Young retired in 2011, after a falling-out with the local hockey federation, but maintains close ties to the game. She has been a referee, plays in-line hockey and is coaching Paralympians – who, unlike South Korea's Olympic hockey players, stand a chance at a medal this year, she says.

Still, on Monday night, she drove across northern South Korea to watch the unified women's team game against Sweden, its second Olympic matchup.

The Korean team, assembled less than a month before the Olympics, initially struggled with even basic issues like communications. The South Koreans used English-inspired hockey terminology; the North Koreans had their own words. Young could have helped translate, but she remains unhappy with Korean hockey authorities – and, in any case, she's certain North Korea would have objected to a defector interacting with its players, who are under the strict watch of minders.

Still, Young said, the experience of being in South Korea is likely to leave a mark.

"I don't really expect the athletes will be transformed," she said. "But they will notice that the South Korean players all have smartphones that let them do anything. And I think they will feel some envy."

With reporting by Cynthia Yoo