SEOUL, March 1 (Reuters) - In 1983, a 16-year-old boy joined a North Korean athletic squad, dreaming of becoming an Olympic judo champion -- but defeat to a South Korean athlete saw him sentenced to hard labour in a coal mine instead.
Now 45-years-old and living as a defector in the South Korean capital of Seoul, Lee Chang-soo is past the age when he can dream of Olympic glory himself, but believes that one of his three sons could claim that title, hopefully by beating an athlete from the reclusive and repressive North.
“It’s definitely Olympic gold medal,” Lee told Reuters of his vivid dream that one day one of his sons would win.
“I want to show them the man that was so tortured has raised his sons this well and will not just stand down. That is a start of my revenge,” he said, his accent still flecked with traces of its North Korean origin despite 20 years in South Korea.
At his peak, Lee had enjoyed all the privileges of an elite athlete in a Stalinist country, from Mercedes Benz cars, the prized membership of the Workers Party of Korea and financial rewards.
“Those who won any medal were given an apartment,” said Lee recalling his team’s ‘glorious return’ from Japan’s Kobe after winning three gold medals from the 1985 Summer Universiade.
Lee started winning local competitions and swiftly moved on to the international stage, winning a bronze medal at the 1989 World Judo Championships in Yugoslavia and a silver medal at the Beijing Asian Games in 1990.
But with North Korea boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Olympics, Lee missed his chance at the Games and then came disaster in the form of defeat to an athlete from South Korea, a country the North remains technically at war with.
Lee said defeated North Koreans -- especially those who lose to South Koreans -- are forced to work in “gulags” where rights group Amnesty International says 200,000 citizens are forced to work with little food under threat of execution.
”I was sent to a coal mine for the first time because I lost against a South Korean in the Beijing Asian Games.
“Then I was sent to work in a boiler room just because I talked back to the deputy chairman of the squad,” said Lee.
But not all of Lee’s luck had run out and he had one admirer who was powerful enough to ensure that the talented athlete could compete again, in the form of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un.
At the time, Jang was practically in charge of the sports department and he was known as a generous boss who helped athletes, although he kept his profile low.
“Athletes liked Jang Song-thaek very much. If they voted for a president, he would be elected,” said Lee of the 65-year old who is now vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the supreme leadership council of North Korea.
Having escaped another trip to the gulag, Lee was in no mood to go back and in 1991 at a competition in Spain chose to defect.
“I was thinking why should I win? If I win a medal, it belongs to North Korea, not me. So I lost on purpose and looked for ways to escape.”
Unable to punish Lee directly, the North Korean regime punished his family, sending his older brother to a lumber camp where he died and the rest of his family to a coal mine.
“There’s nothing I can do for now,” said Lee as he tried to stem his tears.
Now married to a former Taiwanese national judoka, whom he met at international games, Lee runs a small judo class where his three sons train.
Hopes are highest for 17-year old Moon-jin, Lee’s second son, who won a gold medal at a local youth championships in 2010.
“I’ve never regretted coming to South Korea. I will make my sons win an Olympic gold medal and make North Korea the one who regrets.” (Created by David Chance; Editing by Ossian Shine)