Tales of escape paint a picture of life in North Korea

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A North Korean woman speaking to Angus Walker. Photo: ITV News

Through her tears she told me how she had to escape: risk death being shot while running across the border or die of starvation.

The words of one North Korean woman who managed to get out shortly after Kim Jung-un came to power, reveals how the people of the secretive state suffer.

My family had decided to commit suicide, because for three days we didn't have anything to eat, we'd decided to starve to death, we said let's die...but then I wanted to survive - I sold the house for 30 kilos of rice.

She decided to escape. She's now a "traitor" in the eyes of the North and not to be believed.

However, for years the trickle of defectors finally making it to Seoul have been telling stories that have consistency.

Another woman told me how she spent months hiding in China, before finally making it to Thailand, then to a South Korean consulate and freedom in Seoul.

Again, she'd left family behind. She didn't want to reveal her face on camera. I asked her what she thought of Kim Jung-un and his threats to launch attacks on the South and the USA.

Her voice hushed, as if she risked still being overheard. Even now in the safety and freedom of the South she feels the fear. "If I spoke out then I would be killed" she claimed.

Smugglers cross a frozen river from North Korea into China. Credit: ITV News

While Kim Jung-un issues war cries on a daily basis, it's an everyday battle for survival for the millions he rules over.

Food shortages mean that the World Food Programme sees thousands of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The state ration is just a small bowl of cereal a day. For the youngest that can lead to brain damage.

One of the women who escaped told me:

To survive I had to eat grass, people pick grass and leaves, they use them to make soup.

I asked her what she thought of Kim Jung-un.

Kim Jung-un is trying to be more extreme than his father, and trying to distract the North Korean people from their own problems and complaints.

Some of those who managed to escape, told me today that when they finally made it here, to freedom, they began to realise that in the outside world farm animals are treated better than human beings back in North Korea.

An armed soldier is paid to cover the smugglers tracks in the morning. Credit: ITV News

The current missile crisis on the Korean peninsular means that the focus is on military hardware and the intentions of an unpredictable young ruler, the third generation in the world's only Communist dynasty.

What's often forgotten is that while what one diplomat called "a giant game of chicken" continues, the plight of the people, North Korea's 23 million have no choice, no way out and no way of speaking out without taking enormous risks.

Those who have escaped have no way of ever going back, they will never see loved ones again. Those who are caught are sent to gulags, massive camps covering dozens of square miles of mountains and valleys.

Amnesty International has been monitoring the camps via satellite photos. There have been recent signs of expansion. It's thought 200,000 are kept behind the electric fences, deemed to be 'hostile to the state'.

North Koreans watch a smuggled DVD of Gangnam Style. Credit: ITV News

Often entire families are sent to spend years, if not lifetimes in the camps. Few escape from them, some remarkably have.

It's those rare tales of escape that give us the only sense of what life is like in North Korea.