Lee Jeong Hwa stands at barely five foot tall, walks with a distinctive limp and despite being only middle-aged, has a grey, dull complexion.
She says she lives in constant pain – and thinks she knows why.
In 2010, Lee escaped North Korea, one of the most secretive places on earth.
The United Nations say the human rights violations perpetrated by the state of North Korea do not have, “any parallel in the contemporary world”. There are prison camps likened to those that existed in Soviet Russia, and the people within them are subjected to torture, hard labour, rape, human experiments and executions.
A 2014 report out of the UN, documented “unspeakable atrocities” committed within North Korea.
Lee lived in a place called Kilju County, which is also the home of a nuclear testing site where several bombs have been detonated in the last decade.
“We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly,” Lee told NBC.
“Now we know it was radiation.”
Lee told reporters, “So many people died we began calling it ‘ghost disease’.”
The World Health Organisation says exposure to radiation impairs the function of organs, and increases one’s risk of cancer. Prenatal exposure can induce brain damage in foetuses.
According to Lee and a number of other defectors, the radiation has caused headaches, weakness, sores, vomiting, deformity, and has killed civilians prematurely.
The Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, which sits next to Lee’s home in Kilju County, has been the subject of many reports regarding deformed babies and dead bodies floating down the rivers.
Rhee Yeong Sil, who also defected from North Korea, tells an eerily similar story.
Living only a few kilometres from the Punggye-ri site, she said they often felt tremors beneath their feet and had no understanding of what they were. It is only since she fled that Rhee discovered it was nuclear testing.
Now in her 60s, Rhee told reporters that her neighbour gave birth to a baby that was so severely deformed, “We couldn’t determine the gender of the baby, because it didn’t have any genitals.
“In North Korea,” she said, “deformed babies are usually killed. So the parents killed the baby.”
Rhee stays in contact with her family through smuggled mobile phones. She told NBC that they are sick, plagued by constant headaches and vomiting, but no medication will help them.
Accounts from other defectors include water disappearing from wells, collapsing man-made tunnels and planted trees that more than 80 per cent of the time, do not grow. It has been reported that civilians who live near nuclear testing sites are being denied medical help.
Experts have theorised that such sites, particularly Punggye-ri, might suffer from Tired Mountain Syndrome, where explosions are so monumental, they cause the “surrounding rock to become increasingly permeable”.
But United States scientist, Ferenc Daloki-Veress, is not convinced it’s radiation poisoning – or ‘ghost disease’ – that people in North Korea are suffering from.
He told NBChe believes it “very, very unlikely” that their symptoms are a result of their proximity to nuclear testing, and some have suggested that poor sanitation, poor hygiene and malnutrition could just as easily be the cause.
At this point, with no scientists being allowed on the site to conduct any testing, we cannot know for sure.
What we do know, is that the people who escape North Korea bring with them stories that are not at all compatible with the world we know.
The closest thing their accounts resemble are our deepest and most disturbing nightmares.