UNITED NATIONS, United States- Human rights violations in North Korea have increased further due to the reclusive country’s “harsh” anti-Covid measures, the UN chief said in a report that warns the situation could be referred to the International Criminal Court.

“Information received confirmed that the State had further increased its repression of the rights and freedoms of the people” of North Korea, and that the downturn “occurred in the context of the maintenance and subsequent increase of strict Covid-19 restrictions,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote in the assessment released this week.

The report covers the period from August 2021 to July 2022.

“The closure of the country’s borders and restrictions on freedom of movement and social interaction within the country have enabled the Government to further suppress the flow of information and ideas among its people,” he added.

Guterres also stressed there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the State has relied increasingly on the extraction of unpaid forced labor from the general population.” North Korea, one of the first countries to shut its borders in January 2020 after outbreak of the virus in China, has boasted of its ability to keep the pandemic at bay.

With Pyongyang finally announcing its first case in May, Guterres voiced concern the country’s outbreak “may lead to a further deterioration of the broader human rights situation.” He said access to adequate food and health care might diminish, and that the country’s healthcare infrastructure could become overwhelmed by any major Covid outbreak.

The report also expressed worry over the lack of an international presence in North Korea to monitor the pandemic there.

Guterres said the world community should be prepared to seek “accountability if crimes against humanity are found to have been committed,” adding that the UN Security Council should be ready to act on its own or on the General Assembly’s recommendation to refer North Korea’s situation to the International Criminal Court.