The 20,000 North Korean defectors who have escaped to South Korea offer the most graphic and grim glimpses of life in austere, impoverished and isolated North Korea.
They talk of hunger and deprivation; of torture and fear; of constant suspicion and endless surveillance, and of their enduring desire to escape.
Kim Mi-ran, a 50-year-old mother of three children who are still in North Korea, says she first fled to China in 1998 when famine gripped the country and her family was starving. There, she was sold for about $1,000 as the bride of a disabled and mentally retarded Korean-Chinese man, 20 years her elder.
"North Korean women live like a bird in a cage in China," she told a conference on North Korean human rights in Toronto. "They don't even have the status of a stray dog. Some are sold into marriage because they want a bowl of rice. Others are forced into prostitution or become sex slaves or are simply taken advantage of."