SEOUL (AFP) – As a member of the North Korean elite in the 1970s, Kim Young-Soon had it all: well-connected, well-heeled and well-housed. Until the night she was dragged to the country's most notorious prison camp
"I had such a fabulous, pampered life until I was 34, performing for the Dear Leader and across the country like a celebrity," the 77-year-old former dancer told a UN Commission of Inquiry that opened hearings in Seoul this week.
Kim is one of a number of North Korean defectors and former labour camp inmates giving testimony to the commission -- the first UN expert panel to officially examine North Korea's human rights record.
The North, which strongly denies allegations of rights abuses, has refused to recognise the commission and barred its members from visiting the country.
Kim Young-Soon's privileged lifestyle was largely the result of having an older brother who was a general during the 1950-53 Korean War.
She also had many equally privileged friends -- among them a pretty, married actress, Song Hae-Rim, who in 1969 became the lover of Kim Jong-Il, the as-yet unmarried son and heir of then-leader Kim Il-Sung.
"I knew I would never see her again," Kim told the commission of the day Song visited her house to say she was going to move in to the junior Kim's residence.
Kim Jong-Il and Song never married and their relationship was kept secret for years in the deeply conservative North, even after Song gave birth to a son.
In her testimony on Wednesday, Kim Young-Soon said she was among a group "purged" to prevent the story of the relationship spreading.
In 1970 she was summoned by the secret police, locked in a room and grilled for two months about her knowledge of "senior party officials".
She told them nothing but was then taken -- along with her four young children and both her parents -- to Yodok, a newly-built prison camp in a remote mountainous region in the northeast.
There was no trial, and no indication of her sentence.
"They didn't even tell me what my offence was, and only said, 'All of you are supposed to be dead, but are being allowed to live here at the greatest mercy of our leader'," Kim recalled.
So began a nine-year ordeal in what Kim described as "the most hellish place in the world" .
Inmates had to work from dawn to dusk -- tending fields, cutting trees, building livestock sheds -- followed by hours of ideology classes in the evening.
Rations were a handful of salt and maize that was cut if inmates failed to meet their daily work target. Kim said they supplemented their diet with anything they could catch, including snakes, salamanders and rats.
"We ate anything that moved or sprouted from the soil," she said
Inmates caught trying to escape or scavenging leftovers from the guards were executed in public. Anyone showing sympathy for them was either beaten, tortured or even executed themselves.
Kim's said her father starved to death within a year and was soon followed by her mother.
One of her sons drowned in a stream while one daughter was sent to live with a farmer family and never seen again.
Kim said many fallen members of the elite were in the camp, including a celebrated movie director, former generals and a prominent soccer star.
"No one was free from the grips of the Kim dynasty," she said.
Nine years later, a visiting military official who knew Kim Young-Soon's brother managed to help arrange her release in 1979.
After getting out, she found her husband had been sent to another prison camp which "no one can walk out alive from". She never saw or heard from him again.
She was also under constant surveillance by neighbours and secret police, who warned her against spreading "ungrounded rumours" about the leadership.
Kim's youngest son was caught trying to flee the North and executed in 1989 at the age of 23.
The famine that decimated North Korea in the mid-1990s -- coupled with the shock at her son's execution -- convinced Kim that it was finally time for her to escape.
In 2001 she bribed her way across the border with China and eventually made it to Seoul in 2003, where she works as a dance teacher and lectures on life in North Korea.
"Those who live in a free society will never truly understand what happens in those labour camps," she said.