The U.S. rights watchdog said in its World Report 2021, published this week, that the Kim Jong Un regime used "unnecessary and opaque COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 to reinforce its standing as one of the world's most repressive countries."
"The authorities intensified already tight restrictions on communications with the outside world, and created 'buffer zones' on the northern border with orders to 'unconditionally shoot' on sight anybody entering without permission," the group said.
It referred to an incident in September when the North Korean navy shot and killed a South Korean fisheries official along the country's western coast.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the North Korean leader used anti-epidemic restrictions as a "pretext to further entrench totalitarian rule and keep North Koreans isolated from the rest of the world."
International agencies, including the World Health Organization, do not have direct access to the North Korean population. In 2020, Pyongyang reported to the WHO that the country had "zero" cases of COVID-19, while receiving COVID-19 supplies from the International Red Cross.
North Korea's claim about the novel coronavirus could be being used to bolster Kim's legitimacy.
In October, during the 75th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party, the North Korean leader had said not one citizen had "fallen victim to the malignant virus."
The outcome of Pyongyang's Eighth Party Congress, during which Kim was endorsed as the Workers' Party's general secretary, is an indication North Korea is becoming more repressive, according to dissident who escaped the regime.
Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector in Britain, told Radio Free Asia's Korean service Wednesday that the regime is moving to stamp out critical views of state ideology, including views that are non-socialist or anti-socialist.
Park also said North Korea adopted during the Party Congress policies that will eliminate the circulation of information from the outside world, including black-market flash drives and DVDs, according to the report.