North Korea appeared to have eased a strict COVID-19 mask mandate, media reports said this week, after state news agencies showed many people without a mask.

The isolated country has maintained border lockdowns and other anti-COVID measures long after most other nations ditched such restrictions.

North Korean state television and newspapers did not make any official announcement, but showed maskless crowds of people at theaters and other locations.

That was a "stark change" compared to newspaper coverage dating back to September, according to analysts with NK News, a Seoul-based site that monitors North Korea.

Residents, factories and social groups were told that the mandate was lifted as of July 1, U.S.-based Radio Free Asia said Monday, citing unnamed sources.

The report said authorities had eased the mandates because wearing used masks and strict mask control had led to the spread of skin and eye infections.

Last August, North Korean state news agency KCNA said Pyongyang had dropped a face mask mandate along with other social distancing rules as leader Kim Jong Un declared victory over COVID-19.

But one month after the announcement, the authorities ordered citizens to wear masks in public again, citing flu and infectious diseases that can occur during fall and winter, but without specifying COVID-19.

South Korea's spy agency has said defectors who fled North Korea in May decided to do so because of the country's strict COVID-19 controls.

North Korea's strict coronavirus curbs have also been criticized by a United Nations report last year as worsening its human rights violations.