Young female defector makes it big in soccer against the boysOn the dirt field in front of Sinmuk Elementary School in northern Seoul, a group of boys are playing a high-spirited soccer match. It’s a scene repeated daily at schools throughout the country, but one player on this pitch was attracting particular attention, defending madly in front of the goal, time and again to clear the ball out of harm’s way.
But it’s not only athletic ability that’s turning heads. Jo Seon-hwa, 12, is the only girl on the rosters of the 48 teams competing for the Dongwon Cup, the top honor bestowed on primary school soccer teams in Korea.
Nicknamed “ajumma” because of her strength, Seon-hwa anchors the defensive backline for her team. Following in her older brother’s footsteps, she joined the school soccer team in the third grade.
In Korea, coed schools normally field only one soccer team that is, at least in theory, open to both sexes. In practice though, it is very rare for a girl to make the cut.
“I am happy I made many friends through soccer,” Seon-hwa said. Born in the far northeastern tip of North Korea, she came to South Korea with her family in July 2003 through a third country.
“Her father was a miner who first left for Yanbian [China] in February 1998,” said her mother, Jang Myeong-ja. “Three months later, I crossed the Tumen River, leaving my two children behind.”
Ms. Jang says it was painful to think about the children she left behind. To her joy, the children followed one year later, coming with their uncle to join their parents in China.
After arriving in the South, they settled in a small apartment in Seoul’s Nowon district. Seon-hwa’s father worked as a day laborer while her mother sold insurance. When her mother fell ill the family became poorer, and Seon-hwa’s friends donated their soccer shoes in a sign of support.
While playing with the guys is fun for now, Seon-hwa hopes to someday play on South Korea’s national women’s soccer team. “I can go overseas and visit my hometown. I miss my friends in North Korea,” she said.
“Seon-hwa has stamina and speed comparable to boys and has been one of our main players,” said her coach, Bae Dong.
Seon-hwa plans to move to Oju Middle School in Songpa district, known for the quality of its female soccer team. The school has decided to exempt her from paying tuition.
by Kang Hye-ran