Lying among the simple wooden huts and burnt remnants of wooden furniture, they found the bodies of 46 North Korean villagers, including women and children, all of whom had frozen to death. Cut off from the outside world by one of the harshest winters in many years, the villagers had suffered a macabre fate that has exposed both the desperate poverty and callous misrule blighting the Stalinist state.
More than 300 people are thought to have perished from cold so far this winter in North Korea's mountainous north, victims of temperatures as low as -30C and of an arrogant ruling clique.
In a country notorious for its secretiveness, the regime of President Kim Jong-il has made no mention of the deaths. As the rest of the population struggle to stay warm, 50,000 members of his ruling elite continue to live in splendid isolation in a compound in central Pyongyang – enjoying the benefits of hot water, central heating and satellite television.
Elsewhere in the city, though, the scene could have been lifted from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. The air is thick with the smell of coal dust, as families light fires on the floors of their apartments to keep out the bitter, cold winds that blow south from Siberia.
Outside Pyongyang, the situation is yet more desperate. A six-mile drive from the city, poor farmers trudge through the snow with bundles of brushwood on their backs.A massive process of deforestation, begun in the 1990s by Kim Jong-il's father and predecessor, Kim il Sung, has resulted in huge swathes of forest being chopped down to clear land for farming. The disastrous policy led to large-scale soil erosion, believed by many to have been a leading cause of mass famine of the 1990s, when up to three million people starved to death.
[Excerpt of an article by Sergey Soukhorukov, The Sunday Telegraph]