Those who risked everything to leave North Korea have spoken out about a chilling new illness — which they believe is due to radiation exposure.
Locally called "ghost disease", defectors from the isolated Asian nation say the mysterious condition is killing those living near the country's nuclear test sites.
Lee Jeong-hwa told NBC News she had tried to flee North Korea for seven years until she finally broke free in 2010. The middle-aged defector told the outlet she is in constant pain from what she believes is exposure to radiation from numerous weapon tests near her former home.
Former leader Kim Jong-il detonated two nuclear devices at the Punggye-ri test site, which sits within Ms Lee's home county of Kilju. His son and heir, Kim Jong-un, has since tested four more.
"So many people died we began calling it 'ghost disease'," she told NBC.
"We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation."
Radiation can impair the functioning of tissues and organs and there's a long-term risk of cancer — even at lower doses, according to the World Health Organisation.
Despite the claims from Lee and dozens more defectors, South Korea's Ministry of Unification has found no evidence to support the claims after testing 30 former North Koreans for radiation contamination.
Claims from the country's defectors are notoriously hard to verify because access is so heavily restricted.
Those fleeing the repressive country are already putting themselves in an immense amount of danger. And, the crisis has been thrust into the limelight again after a skeleton-filled "ghost ship" carrying the remains of eight bodies was found in a boat which washed up off the northern coast of Japan.
Senior local police official Hideaki Sakyo told AFP the bodies had begun to putrefy and there was little to identify them by.
However, boxes of North Korean tobacco as well as boat parts and life jackets with Korean script nearby could provide some clue as to where they came from.
The bodies are so decomposed authorities are unsure of the cause of death or the sex of those onboard.
Defectors typically make the dangerous journey into South China via China and, in rarer cases, across the dangerous demilitarised zone (DMZ), which stands between the two Koreas.
Last month, a North Korean soldier managed to cross into the South after speeding past a checkpoint and running over the border.
The soldier, who was shot around five times, is now recovering in South Korea.
However, his comrades have reportedly been punished for allowing him to escape.
According to CNN, North Korea has replaced most of the soldiers along the border where the defection occurred.
South Korean politician Kim Young-woo, who is chairman of the National Assembly's defence committee, believed these soldiers would have received some form of punishment.
"North Korea replaced almost all of its troops, if not all, at the Joint Security Area (JSA) for their failure to prevent the defection," he said.
"It was obviously a part of punishment for failing their mission to deter the North Korean soldier's escape on November 13.
"North Korea has always punished those responsible for similar failures."