Three years after defecting here from North Korea, Kim Hye-sook is slowly recovering from the wounds she incurred during nearly three decades in a prison camp.
But potent memories of herself and fellow prisoners being starved, battered and unspeakably humiliated still haunt her.
Kim, 49, thought she would have no more tears to cry. But her lips quivered and eyes brimmed over with tears while recounting the stories of her children and siblings still in the North.
"I met my mother for the first time in five years at a prison camp. I couldn't recognize her at first. She looked thin and just like a beggar dressed in filthy clothes that I saw in old movies, a sign of how hard her life had been there," she told The Korea Herald.
"Her looks and two other raw-boned siblings ? born in a tumbledown house in the camp ? left me speechless. Although I was too young to get a full grasp of what was going on, I knew (that we are in trouble)."
She was brought to the prison camp located somewhere in or close to Pyongyang in 1975, some five years after the rest of her family were dragged there for a reason security authorities did not explain.
After being released from the camp in August 2002, her relatives told her that her entire family had been branded political prisoners after her grandfather defected to the South.
While being brainwashed to worship the ruling Kim dynasty in the prison camp where physical and mental abuses were routine, she did not have the faintest idea about whether her human rights were trampled or even ever existed.
"I did not know what the abuses were. I only knew Kim Jong-il was the great leader. At school, when someone asks you when the great leader was born, you have to automatically recite what you memorized, or else you would get beaten," she said.
"One of the most traumatic things was when a prison officer at a mine full of coal dust ordered me to kneel and spat out his phlegm into my throat. It happened three times to me. It was shockingly humiliating to me. If you resist it or show you feel like throwing up, then the next thing is severe battering."
Kim had to endure all this as she had to take care of her young siblings and ailing grandmother after her anemic mother accidentally fell to her death on a mountain and her father was taken away by security authorities.
The responsibility as a breadwinner weighed heavily on her mind as the young, feeble Kim herself wanted someone to rely on. The specter of death continued throughout her life in the camp where she said at least two or three people each month were executed.
"At the camp, the first reason for execution was asking anybody why you were dragged there. I heard my father was taken away because he asked the authorities why our family was brought there," she said.
"The second reason was stealing food. The amount of food rationed to prisoners is all the same, but if one had more, then someone reported it to the authorities and then, he or she was executed. If you talked back or were disobedient, you would be executed too."
Kim vividly remembered the massive purging of North Korean officials that the deceased leader Kim Jong-il carried out in the 1990s in the process of consolidating his power after the death of his father and national founder Kim Il-sung.
"Thousands of people, at the time, were executed as they asked the authorities why they were dragged into the prison. I was petrified and told myself that I should behave well not to be executed like that," she said.
Over the span of 28 years, things at the brutal camp were not improving at all, she said, dismissing any hopes that human rights conditions in the impoverished state would improveunder its new leader Kim Jong-un.
"When Kim Jong-il took power (after his father died in 1994), things got a lot worse as he purged and executed many in his use of coercion to make people coalesce around him," she said.
"In the case of the new leader, he has now nothing to lose. He does not have his father and many relatives to care about. I think his dictatorship will be even more severe than his father's."
As an example of worsening conditions in the North, she shared the story of a mother who killed her 16-year-old son and sold his flesh as pork meat.
"When I was repatriated (after being caught working at a restaurant in China in October 2007), I met a woman in a prison cell whom the prison officer berated for having murdered and sold her son as pork meat," she said.
After the repatriation, she was sentenced in February 2008 to another six months of hard labor, something she could no longer endure after coming to terms with the reality that her life was not protected by the "Dear Leader," but brutally devastated.
Less than a month after the sentencing, she risked her life to flee the prison at night when she was ordered to clean the streets.
"Though all areas surrounding the prison were blocked with electrified barbed wire, I knew several holes to sneak out of the camp. I lived there for long enough to know that," she said.
In August 2009, Kim landed in the South via Thailand. She came into the spotlight with many civic groups inviting her to speak about freedom and human rights ? concepts she never understood nor imagined in the North.
As time went by, she slowly felt the need to speak up about the human rights issues to help other downtrodden North Koreans and her children that she gave birth to in the camp after marrying another prisoner who died in a coal mine accident.
"I want to tell North Koreans not to die and rise up and survive," she said.
Kim now runs the Organization for the Elimination of Political Prison Camps in North Korea where she has spearheaded a campaign to publicize the dire human rights situation.
With freedom and care from society, she now understands what happiness is. But she hopes to share the happiness with her siblings and two children still suffering from poverty and suppression in the isolated country.
"I wouldn't have any regrets of my life if I could have a chance to see them once before I die. Whenever I eat good food, I am automatically reminded of my loved ones in the North," she said.
Kim is to deliver another testimony about her experience in the prison camp at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul on Thursday.