Definition: Something, or someone, that is not able to be killed.
The word ‘immortal’ is a word usually reserved for fantasy novels or myths. Fictional characters may be described as immortal to show that they are above normal humans. Whilst the concept of immortality is clearly just that; fictional, one mixed martial artist may be the closest fit to the definition of the word.
Park Il-Chung is the toughest fighter you’ve never heard of, and I don’t mean his in-cage persona.
Il-Chung had to survive with the tribulations of growing up in North Korea under the totalitarian dictatorship of the Kim regime. Starved of food, happiness and overall quality of life, the now 25-year-old fighter always had ambitions of one day becoming an MMA fighter, but that dream would only become a reality by escaping the dystopian-esque country that is ever-present in today’s media and seeking a better life elsewhere.
Over 1000 North Koreans risk torture, imprisonment and death every year to try and defect to the South but not all are successful. Defectors must cross the polluted and guarded Tumen River separating North Korea and China and avoid Chinese authorities who may deport them if they are caught. From there, escapees have to make the perilous and trudging journey to the safe-haven of South Korea before they are truly protected.
Park Il-Chung, now living his life freely in Chuncheon, South Korea, bravely agreed to tell his inspirational story to MMAUK.
MMAUK: “What was it like growing up in North Korea?”
Park Il-Chung: “I spent my childhood in North Korea. When I was 11 years old, my father tried to escape and was killed by a North Korean border guard. The following year, my mother told me that she was going to escape and fled to South Korea first and I was left alone living in North Korea with my younger sister since I was 12 years old.
“In North Korea, I tried to be strong with the idea that my younger sister couldn’t be on her own and that I must protect my sister. We spent six years living alone in North Korea and tried our escape on 8th November 2008 but it failed. I was defeated and the people who helped us were sent to prison in Doomhae. At 3am on 1st March 2009, I crossed the border between North Korea and China with my sister and eventually made my way to South Korea through Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.”
Essentially orphaned by the horrors of the North that forced his parents to embark individually to attempt to escape, Park had to not only keep strong for himself but also his young sister. After narrowly escaping torture and imprisonment in one of North Korea’s many imprisonment camps, similar to the gulags of Soviet Russia, or an unceremonious death whilst crossing the border, Park made it across the Tumen River with his sister and into Chinese territory at the age of 18.
Now a South Korean citizen, Park Il-Chung is free to finally follow his lifelong aspiration of becoming an MMA fighter and has fought professionally in Road Fighting Championships in South Korea.
MMAUK: “It had always been your desire to become an MMA fighter. How hard was it to start once you had escaped?”
Park Il-Chung: “When I escaped North Korea I did not know what to do. After 2 years I became a professional mixed martial arts fighter after turning away from professional boxing. I signed a contract with a small promotion in South Korea but I did not get a lot of opportunities to fight, with the fights I was offered being cancelled due to other fighters getting injuries. I fought two extremely strong fighters in seven weeks and the fights did not go very well. In the future, it is my dream to fight in a huge promotion like the UFC or Bellator. I will fight with every ounce of my body to do so.
“Protecting my sister was always my priority when we were in North Korea. I wanted to train MMA very much but I could not train enough. I had to live with hunger first and I could not exercise. I longed for freedom. I wanted to start my dreams with MMA and now that dream has become a reality in South Korea. I love it so much.”
MMAUK: “You’re now living in South Korea. How different is it from where you grew up?”
Park Il-Chung: “I can simply say that North Korea is a hell and South Korea is a heaven. In North Korea, even if I work all day, I starve to death, but in South Korea I am rewarded for my efforts.
“Once North Korea’s third successive heritage is over, North Korea needs to open up and not be so isolated. North Korea has positioned Kim Jong-Un higher than God and he has been brainwashed since childhood.”
Akin to the story of Dante’s Inferno, Park overcame the Hellish trials put before him so that he could make it to heaven. What he lacks in experience due to not being able to practise MMA during his childhood, Park makes up for with his will and desire that translates over from his enduring escape to the South and is determined to prove himself inside the cage just as he has done ouside of it.
MMAUK: “You are the only MMA fighter in the world born in North Korea, do you feel like you are representing your country of birth when you fight or do you no longer associate yourself with your former country?”
Park Il-Chung: “I think that when I compete in MMA I fight for two of my relatives and my friends who are still in North Korea but I represent South Korea, the country who received me. I do like the title of “only MMA fighter born in North Korea” though!”
MMAUK: “With the Winter Olympics just gone and the pioneering unified Korean women’s hockey team, what are your thoughts on a unified Korea?”
Park Il-Chung: “It is my dream to be unified but I don’t think it will happen. With the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games and the North Korean women’s ice hockey team, I can only think of it as a show of politicians to gain support. Politicians make an election pledge to win the election. I haven’t seen anything saying that we will be unified once the election is over. I still keep belief that we may be unified one day.”
Whatever the fate of the Korea is, the limited stories that do emerge from North Korea like Park Il-Chung’s are a testament to show the inhumanity taking place in the North. A reality that leaves parents with no choice but to abandon their children is a frightening one that brings all morality into question.
Park is continuing his MMA journey and is fighting later this month with the sole aim of winning and being granted entry to a major MMA tournament in Korea. Less than a decade ago, he was imprisoned by the ruthlessness of North Korean society and had to survive his teenage years on his own. Now, after narrowly eluding death and conquering the colossal adversity of his escape, Park Il-Chung is achieving his childhood ambition of competing in the cage. It may be the darkest and most surreal underdog story you hear, but surely it is the most inspirational.
“The Immortal” Park Il-Chung.