South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters Tuesday that he and other members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee had been informed of the alleged attack by the country’s espionage agency. Ha’s office confirmed the comments made to CNN on Wednesday.
Later that morning, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) issued a statement contradicting Ha’s claims. The agency said it reported “general cases of hacking attempts” by coronavirus vaccine developers to Ha and the committee but “did not provide any company names including Pfizer”.
“The National Intelligence Service did not say that Pfizer was hacked in a question-and-answer session yesterday at the briefing for the National Assembly Intelligence Committee of North Korea,” the NIS statement said.
Ha, who is a member of the main opposition party, quickly shot back on Facebook. He said the briefing documents were shared with the lawmaker named Pfizer, but the NIS collected the document at the end of the meeting, likely for security reasons.
Ha said he took notes to remember key points in the document. He posted a copy of the notes online with a reference to Pfizer and “hacking vaccination records.”
“I couldn’t have made notes on Pfizer if it hadn’t been mentioned in the document,” he said.
It is unclear when the alleged attack took place.
Pyongyang has not publicly acknowledged the alleged theft, although North Korean diplomats usually deny any allegations of wrongdoing.
North Korea is hacking allegations
Most of the attacks have been blocked, Microsoft said in a statement at the time.
North Korea has invested heavily in offensive cyber capabilities in recent years to enable the impoverished country to make money, attack enemies, and pursue priorities of the Kim Jong Un regime at relatively low cost.
It appears that the Kim regime has redirected its cyber skills to its pandemic prevention efforts and securing a vaccine.
“The North Koreans are taking a comprehensive approach,” said Dr. Kee B. Park, director of the Korea Health Policy Project at Harvard Medical School and the North Korea program of the Korean American Medical Association. “They try everything – they make their own, maybe through GAVI (an organization involved in COVAX), maybe through bilateral channels.”
North Korea’s top priority since the pandemic outbreak last year has been to keep the coronavirus from overwhelming its rundown health infrastructure. Pyongyang voluntarily severed most of its scarce ties to the outside world in 2020 to prevent an influx of Covid-19, including cutting off almost all trade with Beijing – an economic lifeline for North Korea to keep the population from starving.
Even so, Kim, who is overweight and reportedly leading a very unhealthy lifestyle, was confident enough to make multiple public appearances without a mask during the pandemic.
He and his wife Ri Sol Ju were photographed without a mask at a concert on Tuesday. It was the first time in more than a year that Ri appeared in North Korean state media. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said South Korean intelligence believed it was low as a precautionary measure because of the pandemic.
The use of the data
Park of Harvard Medical School said that on a visit to North Korea he saw medical professionals demonstrating the expertise and technology used to manipulate and splice genes. However, the country may not be able to take the crucial next steps in vaccine development, he said.
With so few cases in North Korea, there likely aren’t enough infected people in the country to properly test the effectiveness of a domestically manufactured vaccine, Park said. Conducting legal proceedings overseas, such as in China, would likely be too expensive and could break United Nations sanctions unless there are joint ventures with the Kim regime.
Then the question arises whether North Korea is able to manufacture a vaccine on such a large scale. Pyongyang usually relies on international donors for other vaccines, such as the treatment of tuberculosis.
Finally, it is unclear how useful the Pfizer data would be for North Korea. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine approved for emergency use with MRNA technology. Few pharmaceutical companies have been able to achieve this. Those who achieved this have spent billions on it, according to Park.
“MRNA is cutting edge technology,” said Park. “Whether or not North Korea has this type of technology, I don’t know, but … I would be really surprised if they could. It’s something that even many developed countries are struggling with.”
CNN’s Will Ripley, Paula Hancocks and Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.