The latest U.S. State Department report on human rights describes North Korea as having the world's most oppressive government. The report says North Koreans face imprisonment without trial, torture, infanticide, and human trafficking both at home, and when they flee to China. Activists are hoping to get the United Nations this month to pay more attention to North Korean refugees, many of whom recently gave emotional testimony in Seoul about their experiences.
Kim Chun Ae's voice broke with tears as she described her life in a North Korean prison.
"They hit a baby less than two months old over the head with a thick book - and forced a woman who was eight months pregnant to have an abortion just because the father of the baby was Chinese," she said. "Some officials even demanded sexual relationships from these women just because their husbands were Chinese."
Ms. Kim, who lives in South Korea now, spoke at a recent conference on North Korean human rights in Seoul. She is one of the few people who have succeeded in leaving the North, making a dangerous journey through China, and eventually reaching South Korea.
Authorities in Seoul estimate about 100,000 North Koreans are hiding in China. Like Ms. Kim, many have made several attempts to flee - often being captured and returned to the North several times.
Sun Yeong Go also spoke at the February conference, organized by The Citizens' Coalition for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul. She and her family were sent to a North Korean labor camp, but she never fully understood why.
"The rooms were so tiny they could hardly accommodate seven people - and the kitchen was made of corn leaves and mud. I had never seen that before," she said. "When I went up the mountain to get wood, I would cry out loud, thinking what I did do so wrong that they sent to this horrible place? Even then I didn't know what my charges were."
Over the coming weeks, activists for North Korean refugees hope to persuade the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to pass a resolution criticizing Pyongyang's rights record. They want the commission to push for greater access for the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, and to build pressure on Pyongyang to change its ways.
North Korea's Stalinist government practices collective punishment - trying to deter individual offenses by locking up an offender's entire family.
Ms. Sun says some families were imprisoned for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts - perceived as seditious by a government that tolerates no outside influences.
North Korea's unique form of communism exalts leader Kim Jong Il and his late father, the country's first leader, Kim Il Sung, above everything else. Even tiny deviations from political orthodoxy can lead to severe prison sentences or death.
North Korean defector Kim Seong Min says political discipline starts at the earliest possible age.
"In North Korea, children are taught by their parents first to say 'Thank you, great father Kim Il Sung and the Great Leader Kim Jung Il' instead of 'Mom and Dad', she explained. " After the serious food shortages [of the 1990s], they were given a cup of water and told to chant 'thank you, dear father Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jung Il'."
In addition to the abuses of their government, many refugees have struggled with years of deprivation. An estimated three million North Koreans have died since the onset of near famine conditions in the early 1990s. Economists blame the shortages mainly on Pyongyang's mismanagement.
Aid groups and political analysts say food and politics cannot be separated in North Korea. They say Pyongyang classifies its citizens into four levels depending on their perceived loyalty to the government - elites at the top receive food, while those considered politically unreliable are often left hungry. Aid groups also say food is often diverted to the military rather than the general population.
Kim Hyuk, who is a 23-year-old defector, recalls his teenage years in a North Korean orphanage.
"In just three months, 23 out of 76 children died," he recalled, " people got diseases easily because of malnutrition. I was 13 years old and able to pick pockets or beg to feed myself. But most of the children aged seven to 10 couldn't feed themselves, and even when they could, they couldn't swallow and digest the food because their stomach was shrunken, and they died."
Park Gwang Il was a teacher in North Korea before defecting to the South. He says poverty made education a distant second priority for many children.
"They couldn't come to school because they didn't have clothes to wear," he said. "They are abandoned children. Parents even force them out of home because they cannot take care of them."
North Korean Kim Chun Ae says so many children are separated from their parents, they are referred to as kotchebi, or "flower swallows."
"In the market, flower swallows would steal money and food from passersby, and weaker and younger children would pick up food from the ground. I saw a five-year-old girl with her blind father," she said. "The man said he became blind from malnutrition, and came to sell the daughter to a person who can feed her better before she becomes blind too…. A soldier took her … the little girl never cried or said anything. But … I can never forget the expression in her eyes."
The Citizens' Coalition for North Korean Human Rights says widespread human trafficking is a byproduct of North Korean migration to China. China classifies North Koreans as economic migrants and sends those who are caught back home against their will.
The Citizens' Coalition says the threat of being returned to punishment or death gives human traffickers leverage over women migrants.
Defector Kim Chun Ae says many of them end up captured and sold.
"I remember crying when I thought of a 12-year-old girl who was sold to traffickers. Children at her age need care and protection from their parents," she said. "But they are sold to traffickers and forced to live as sex slaves. Girls aged 17 to 19 were sold in one place, to be resold to other places by traffickers."
Refugee Park Eun Cheol says many North Koreans fall into a repeating cycle of escape, arrest, repatriation and abuse.
"Life was freer in China than in North Korea. But I was always nervous because I had no I.D. or protection from the state," she said. "I was caught seven times in China. Every time I was caught, I was sent to different prisons. Then I left North Korea again for China. But I got caught again and sent to Sinuiju prison where I was treated as less than a dog."
Only 6,000 North Koreans have ever succeeded in resettling in the South, most of them in the past three years.
Human rights activists say the first step toward improving conditions for North Koreans is for China to treat them as refugees. They say that means allowing United Nations personnel access to them and protecting them from human traffickers.
Within South Korea there is a sharp division on how to approach the North. The ruling Uri party supports a policy of peaceful engagement and economic ties with Pyongyang. Party members, including President Roh Moo-hyun, say the best way to improve conditions for North Koreans is to help their country transform itself gradually.
Others, including many defectors, call for firmer action. As a start, they say South Korea should make humanitarian aid and commerce with North Korea conditional on improvements in the human rights situation there.