North Korea has substantially ramped up border restrictions during the COVID pandemic, worsening severe shortages of food, medicine and other necessities, according to a report from a human rights group.
North Korean authorities have imposed “excessive and unnecessary” border measures since January 2020, including upgraded fences, guard posts and patrol roads, an analysis of satellite images by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows.
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The beefed-up security includes the addition of 169 guard posts and nearly 20km (12 miles) of new fencing in the vicinity of the border city of Hoeryung, a popular transit point for smuggling and trade, between November 2020 and April 2022.
HRW said it had spoken to five North Korean defectors involved in smuggling goods in or out of the isolated country who have been unable to carry out their activities since February 2020.
“The North Korean government used purported COVID-19 measures to further repress and endanger the North Korean people,” said Lina Yoon, a senior Korea researcher at HRW.
“The government should redirect its energies to improving access to food, vaccines and medicine, and respecting freedom of movement and other rights.”
Yoon said past experience had shown that relying on state-run distribution of food and essential goods “only entrenches repression and can lead to famine and other catastrophes”.
Hanna Song, director of international cooperation at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), which was not involved in the report, said the findings mirrored other data, including the sharp decline in defections to South Korea, which fell from 1,047 in 2019 to just 42 so far this year.
“Using COVID-19 has been a great excuse for the Kim Jong-un regime to tell its people that they are protecting them, while actually just meeting their objectives of keeping the North Korean people isolated,” Song told Al Jazeera.
“That being said, NKDB has been able to see that the North Koreans are not completely closed off,” Song added. “In a survey that NKDB did with 399 North Korean escapees in September 2022, 71 people said that they had sent money to North Korea in 2022 and 87 people have had some form of contact with family members in North Korea.”
North Korea, ruled by third-generation leader Kim Jong-un, became the first country to seal its borders in response to COVID-19 in January 2020, banning almost all international travel and severely limiting economic activity with neighbouring China, the source of more than 90 percent of its trade.
The secretive state is among Asia’s poorest countries, with more than 40 percent of the population undernourished and in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Programme.
In August, Pyongyang declared victory over the virus, after blaming its first official outbreak on neighbouring South Korea.
Authorities claimed only 74 people had died from the virus despite reporting more than 4.7 million infections.
Medical experts have cast doubt on the death rate given North Korea’s debilitated healthcare system and lack of vaccines, and the impact of the virus elsewhere.