JIHYUN Park pulled her son down to the ground when she saw the headlights in the dark.
She was attempting to climb over the border fence to get from China to Mongolia with her six-year-old son – if cops caught her, she'd be deported back to North Korea and locked up once more in the country's nightmarish detention centres.
By this night in 2005, Jihyun had already survived an escape from North Korea into China, where she was sold into human trafficking, and spent months in the DPRK's labour camps.
Eventually finding freedom in the UK after years of struggling, she is one of the lucky few to escape North Korea's brutal regime.
"Kim Jong-un is a murderer and he killed many people," Jihyun tells Sun Online.
"He’s killing 25million people in North Korea – we need to remember them."
The situation in North Korea has become even more desperate during the pandemic, with worrying reports of food shortages and government advice to eat terrapins while other basics aren't available.
And with security inside the world's most repressive country stepped up to fight coronavirus, the possibility of escape is more hopeless than ever before.
Starving to death 'like animals'
Before Jihyun's first escape from North Korea, she witnessed thousands of people starving to death – including members of her own family – during the Great Famine of the 1990s.
She was raised in the city of Chongjin in North Hamgyung Province, in the north east of North Korea.
There, Jihyun worked as a school teacher and, thanks to her mother's business and her father's membership in the Workers' Party of Korea, she lived a relatively stable life before the famine began.
Her house had an image of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea on the wall – as did every other home in her city.
“My family had enough food in our home. Until the 1990s, I didn’t know the meaning of hunger," Jihyun tells Sun Online.
"But after the 1990s, business was really hard in North Korea and my mother’s business failed.
“After then, my family situation crashed down.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea stopped receiving aid.
This lack of support coupled with a spiralling economic crisis and biblical flooding in 1994 led to widespread food shortages.
It's not clear how many died from starvation in what is now referred to as the Great Famine or the Arduous March, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions.
Everywhere, Jihyun says, she saw corpses in the streets.
“We had no food," Jihyun says. "In 1996, my uncle died of starvation in front of me.
“That is very painful, how we watched these starving people. They don’t look like people.
"When my uncle died, he looked like an animal. Just only bones in his body.
“Outside, nobody smiled. Everyone was dark faced."
In time, Jihyun's father also became terribly sick.
She would leave a bowl of rice for him in the morning before she left for work – but it would still be there, cold and untouched, when she returned in the evening.
He wanted to share it with her, because he didn't want his daughter to go hungry.
His condition deteriorated so much that he stopped being able to speak and could only communicate by writing things down.
And the family's fortunes fell in other ways too. Jihyun's brother got into serious trouble while working with the military, and authorities were looking for him.
"My father’s last wish was to save my younger brother," Jihyun says. "One day he woke up and moved his hand and gestured to leave.
"That was my turning point, why I left North Korea."
After she fled, her father succumbed to starvation too.
Secret escape turns into nightmare
The majority of North Koreans who defect do so by crossing the border into China before travelling to a third country, typically in South East Asia, where they can then apply for asylum.
Escapes are extremely dangerous – even for those who successfully get over, defectors are considered illegal immigrants and face deportation if they're caught in China.
Once back in North Korea, captured defectors face brutal punishments in detention centres, including forced labour, re-education, and torture.
In the February of 1998, Jihyun and her brother made their escape across frozen rivers and mountains into China with the help of a broker who promised them good lives in their new country.
But when they arrived, Jihyun quickly realised she'd been lied to.
"I was sold into human trafficking and then separated from my brother," she says.
"He was sent back to North Korea. I still don’t know if he survived or died."
Jihyun was kept for days by the broker as potential buyers came to look at her and haggle for her life.
"I was sold to a Chinese man for 5,000 yuan – that is maybe £500," Jihyun says.
The farmer who bought her threatened her with violence and deportation if she didn't do as exactly as he said.
And she even had a son by the man who bought her, and was put to work for five years living in constant fear.
It didn't seem like life could be harder.
But then one night in 2004, Chinese authorities came to her house – she was caught, and was to be deported to North Korea.
Worse, she was going to be separated from her son, who was just five years old.
"My son was my last family," Jihyun says.
"I was really scared I wouldn’t come back. I didn’t say to my son: ‘Wait for me,’ because the police didn’t allow me and my son a last chance to speak to each other."
Beaten in lice-ridden hellhole
Back in her homeland, Jihyun was put through the country's brutal detention centres and labour camps.
Dozens of prisoners were crammed into dank cells without electricity or toilets, instead having a bucket in the middle of the room.
"The smell was horrific," Jihyun says.
"In the morning, the bucket area was disgusting, because there was no light.”
The appalling conditions also meant that prisoners were covered in lice, and women weren't allowed to use sanitary pads, being forced instead to use ripped up cloth which they weren't allowed to wash.
One of the places she was jailed was Chongjin labour camp, not far from where she'd lived before defecting.
There, the gruelling day began at 4.30am and would go on until late in the evening, at which point prisoners were made to sing patriotic songs and recite party principles.
“They treat us like animals," Jihyun says.
"We were not human. We worked barefoot, and just with our hands.”
The backbreaking work involved clearing a mountainside to make terraced fields.
Four women would be made to pull a tonne of soil in an oxcart and, in the summer months, prisoners would eat raw potatoes they found in the dirt to save themselves from starvation.
“We wanted to die because it was very, very hard," Jihyun says.
"We were also hungry, because they didn’t give us proper food, or enough water or medicine.
“I only thought about my son. I am not religious, but I prayed every day.
"To Buddha, to God, Mary – just save my son. One day, I wanted to be reunited with him.
"I thought only of that. That’s why I survived in this camp.”
One morning, she awoke with enormous pain in her leg and she pleaded with guards for help – they accused her of lying and beat her as punishment.
But the next day her leg had swollen, and she was in agony, as yellow fluid poured from abscesses.
She was taken for medical evaluation and her captors made a grave assessment.
"They released me because they thought I wouldn’t survive," Jihyun says. "The infection was really bad."
She was released into normal North Korean life, such as it is, with no money, no home to go to, and a terrifying health condition.
Desperate last bid for freedom
Anxious to be reunited with her son, Jihyun made the daunting decision to sneak back into China once again.
This time she knew she would be trafficked by the broker who took her over the border, but she chose to go anyway.
“I accepted – I had no choice because I had no money, and my health was bad," Jihyun says.
When she arrived, the broker took pity on Jihyun's situation and allowed her to call her son, who had been cruelly told he was abandoned by his mother.
She knew the number of the house where they had once lived together, but when she called he didn't speak, wordlessly hanging up the phone.
On her third attempt, she finally managed to get through to him.
"I said: 'Son, it’s mum.' And then my son said only one word: ‘Mum?’ And he cried. I cried," Jihyun says.
But after reuniting with him, she knew they couldn't stay in China.
"If I got sent back to North Korea again for a second time, I knew I couldn’t survive.”
'I thought the police had seen us'
That's how Jihyun decided to join a party of nine North Korean defectors attempting to cross into Mongolia from China.
They had to climb three fences to make it across the border, all without being detected by Chinese authorities who constantly patrol the boundary.
Under the cover of darkness, all of the group made it over the fence – except Jihyun and her son.
“He was scared," she said.
"We sat down, we couldn’t walk. I was just holding my son’s hand and I saw car lights.
"I thought it was a Chinese police car. I was really scared.”
To make matters worse, she saw a man running towards them.
Jihyun was sure they were caught – but instead, the man took her hand and put her son on his shoulders, and helped them make the crossing by cutting the wire fence.
It was one of the other defectors who, seeing them in trouble, stayed behind to help.
After successfully making their escape and starting a new life in Mongolia, Jihyun began a relationship with the man who helped her.
“He is a very kind man, and I fell in love with him," Jihyun says. "It was the first time I’d loved.”
After years of struggle in Mongolia and China, the family eventually arrived in the UK in 2008.
Freedom at last
Jihyun and her husband now have three children and live happily in Manchester.
She now works as a human rights activist and with Connect: North Korea, an organisation which supports North Korean refugees living in the UK.
Last month, Jihyun was part of a team that helped donate 7,000 PPE sets to care homes in Britain.
She was moved to act by heartbreaking stories of coronavirus deaths sweeping through the homes of her vulnerable British neighbours.
"I’ve already seen many people die in my lifetime in North Korea," Jihyun says.
"I cannot see these lovely people dying in my area.
I can’t help people in North Korea, but I knew I could help donate PPE to care homes here, because it’s a horrible situation.”
She hopes her story and her work will raise awareness about the plight facing millions of North Koreans still living under Kim Jong-un's regime.
“People think of the Kim family as a really strong family in North Korea," Jihyun says. "But I say that it’s the North Korean people who are strong.
"Every day they fight through this evil. I already fought against them twice, and I finally won.
"One day my 25million people will find their freedom too. Please remember them, and fight with us.”
Lockdown makes escape impossible
But the situation in North Korea during the coronavirus pandemic has made life much harder for those who want to escape.
Kim Jong-un closed the nation's borders in January this year and security has increased after North Korea admitted to its first suspected case of Covid-19 last week.
Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), says the number of defectors successfully escaping has completely collapsed this year.
LiNK helps escapees by supporting them on their 3,000-mile journey through China via a secret route before helping them find refuge in South Korea and the US.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’ll be a massive uptick this year and maybe even next year," Sokeel tells Sun Online.
"It will depend on how things go on the North Korean-China border, throughout China, and then crossing into South East Asia as well."
In 2019, Sokeel says only 1,047 defectors made it to North Korea, which was the lowest figure for around two decades – but 2020's total will be radically lower.
"In Q2 [April, May, and June], only 12 North Koreans made it to South Korea," Sokeel says.
MORE IN NEWS
"That number should be approaching 300 – but only 12 people made it. It hasn’t been that low since the 1990s.
"For the period where North Koreans were escaping and making it to South Korea, it’s never been that low.
"This is a historic situation."