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North Korea COVID-19 measures were 'overbroad, excessive', activists say

People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's border closings and other anti-pandemic measures were "overbroad, excessive, and unnecessary" and severely affected food security and the availability of essential products, U.S.-based rights activists said in a new report.

As the pandemic gripped the world in 2020, Kim Jong Un’s regime embarked on a massive exercise to seal its borders with China and Russia, cutting off routes plied by smugglers and defectors.

Some of the restrictions remain, and Pyongyang has only recently allowed more access to foreign diplomats and increased trade with Russia and China.

The report, by Human Rights Watch (HRW), cites interviews with former North Korean traders, defectors and others with ties to the secretive country, as well as satellite imagery of the border regions.

"The government has sought to reimpose its control in areas in which its dominance had weakened over the past two and half decades: in particular, control over the border, market activity, unsanctioned travel, and access to information," the report said.

North Korea has not commented on the border restrictions, but has asserted that it looks after the needs of its people, while acknowledging some food shortages and arguing that international sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program have caused hardships.

An analysis by Reuters and the U.S.-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey last year found Pyongyang had built hundreds of kilometres of new or upgraded border fences, walls and guard posts, enabling it to tighten the flow of information and goods into the country, keep foreign elements out and its people in.

HRW closely examined several of those areas with new border walls and confirmed that construction of new watchtowers and other facilities went far beyond pre-pandemic levels.

In 2019, border guard posts largely existed only in urban areas, and watchtowers were built every 1 to 3 kilometres on average, the report said.

The HRW analysis found that by early 2023, authorities had built on average one guard post, watchtower, or garrison for every 110 meters of fence line on the border in the areas analysed.

"The restrictions blocked most sources of income for a large majority of the population and reduced their ability to buy already-limited food, medicines, and necessities," the report said.

According to Seoul-based NK News, North Korea has continued to block access by foreign aid workers despite allowing visits by Russian tourists and Chinese trade delegations.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)