David considers Seoul his safe haven.
The casual observer will see nothing unusual about him.
He is a petite man with soft spoken words. He wears baggy jeans and large glasses, which are trendy in South Korea.
His story and the journey he underwent to get there are truly remarkable.
He is a North Korean defector and one of very few who have managed to escape the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea).
He tells me that his mother had bribed him before he crossed the border into China.
“The river was solid frozen. I can recall walking for 15 to 20 minutes on the ice.
“I can remember feeling cold after crossing the river, and climbing up the fence that the Chinese guards had put up.”
We cannot tell you the exact date or how he left North Korea for the safety of his family members. For his family, any specific information could lead to harsh punishments.
His stories from the inside are amazing and give a rare glimpse of life there since the epidemic hit.
Father vanished without a trace
It seems that his childhood was fairly normal in DPRK terms. He helped out in the fields from an early age and attended school when he could.
However, everything changed quickly after his father disappeared suddenly without a trace.
He explains, “It wasn’t until around a year later that he got in touch us that I realized he had fled the south.”
“He called my mother by telephone. We didn’t realize that the North Korean state security department had been tapping our landline. Our mother was therefore sent to the labour camp.
He was initially allowed to visit his mother once every three months while in detention. He describes the shocking things he saw.
He says, “The food in these detention centers is pitifully small.”
“Prisoners get around 20-30 kernels of corn per meal. This is clearly not enough to sustain a person’s life, so I brought a lunch with me when I visited her.
“My mother’s body had shrunk by half in the three months she was in detention. My eyes flooded with tears when I first saw her. She was so disfigured and gaunt that she didn’t immediately make me feel like I knew her.
“They also beat women in prison. Mother’s eyes were sore and bruised everywhere. “I wept when she showed me her wounds.”
David was a young child at the time, but he was left to care for his siblings and himself. He claims he quit school to try to make ends meets, working in the fields in the winter and logging in summer, and also stole food to survive.
He gave his mother as much as he could.
He explains that his mother told him that if inmates didn’t have visits from their families in prison, they would die of malnutrition.
“She claimed that tens of thousands died each day from malnutrition. She said that people would die during meals.
She said, “To dispose off the corpses they folded them at their waists and put them into sacks.
“The corpses were then buried near the prison fences. The graves were not very deep so the corpses’ stench would rise from the ground when the soil warmed.
His mother told him about the torture she endured. They were forced to sit for 17 hours and beat anyone who moved more than a finger.
She described how prisoners whose families were unable to pay extra food or bribe guards for their assistance would live to just three to four year old lives.
David’s stories are important because there is very little evidence from North Korea.
This already secretive state has been made even more difficult to access by the pandemic.
Anyone trying to cross the border will be shot.
Around 1,000 defectors from North Korea per year were recorded in the 2010s. The vast majority of them crossed the border with China to seek asylum in third countries.
However, a combination between the DPRK and China’s strict closed-border policies, as well as a new policy of shooting anyone crossing, meant that the number dropped to just 67 in 2022.
Meet Kim Jong Un’s “precious” child
Russia “wants to trade food and weapons with North Korea”
This means that we don’t know much about the country’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are growing evidence that it has further strangled an already dysfunctional economic system, causing new waves of poverty and suffering.
“The borders were closed out of concern that the pandemic might come from North Korea,” says David. David says that no one was allowed near the border.
“All trade routes were effectively shut down. To survive, we relied heavily on smuggled goods coming from China.
“I heard from a relative that there are more people who are hungry and that prices are increasing.” It is becoming more difficult to live.
Subscribe to Sky News Daily, where you can get your podcasts
Many believe that people have died from lack of food in recent times.
“I would say it’s a chronic economic crisis, and not an acute one. It’s an ongoing, poor economic situation,” states Chad O’Carroll (founder of NK News).
What’s the current situation in North Korea?
His team and he try to understand what’s happening in North Korea. Their sources have become less reliable since the pandemic. However, there are plenty of clues that all is not well.
Mr O’Carroll states, “I think some people would have serious health problems because of the food shortages.” He says that there are evidence that the crisis has even reached the elites living in major cities.
He says, “In Pyongyang or other major urban areas, there have not been such severe shortages but the diversification of the available foods has significantly decreased.”
“So, if your chronic health condition is severe, and you are old, it could really impact your health.
“There have been large-scale mobilisations of people from all walks to help in the farms.
“We have some sources that indicate middle and senior elites are being asked to help the nation with this crisis of food.
It is unlikely that the Kim regime will be affected by this crisis.
The propaganda machine is on full display, blaming the pandemic worldwide and showing images of large-scale deaths and hospitals in crises elsewhere.
The North Korean people are not strangers to hardship.
The majority of people agree that the DPRK’s increased secrecy was a real benefit to its security services. It will likely continue.
However, for a nuclear-armed power that is increasingly assertive in international affairs, the reality of what happens inside is still shrouded by mystery.