North Korea Pfizer Hack Allegations: South Korean lawmakers and spy agency deny Covid-19 claims

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.

Pfizer said Tuesday it would not comment on the matter. The American pharmaceutical company and the German company BioNTech developed this together first Covid-19 vaccine approved by the World Health Organization for emergency use (WHO).

North Korea is hacking allegations

This is not the first time North Korean cyber criminals have been accused of stealing information related to the treatment of Covid-19. Microsoft claimed In November, cyber attacks from North Korea were directed against vaccine manufacturers who sometimes “disguised themselves as representatives of the World Health Organization”.

Most of the attacks have been blocked, Microsoft said in a statement at the time.

Reuters reported later that month North Korean hackers have been suspected of having launched a cyber attack against UK coronavirus vaccine developer AstraZeneca, who posed as a recruiter and targeted the pharmaceutical company’s employees – including those working on Covid-19 research – with fake job offers.

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.

The United Nations accused Pyongyang of hacking steal $ 316.4 million worth of virtual assets between 2019 and November 2020, money likely used to fund the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.

It appears that the Kim regime has redirected its cyber skills to its pandemic prevention efforts and securing a vaccine.

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COVAX, an initiative to ensure equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, said it will deliver to North Korea with nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus. But North Korea will likely do whatever it takes to get its people a vaccine, even if it means resorting to theft.

“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.

The suppression of trade hit the economybut from a public health perspective it seems to have worked. It does not appear that North Korea has suffered major Covid-19 outbreaks within its borders. North Korea claims it has not registered a single case of Covid-19, a claim that most experts consider suspicious. The country has only tested a fraction of its population and shares a border with China, where the pandemic began.

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.

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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

It’s not exactly clear what data North Korea allegedly stole from Pfizer or what North Korean scientists can do with it. North Korea said in July it would try to develop its own coronavirus vaccine, but few believed Pyongyang had the scientific resources or finances to pursue an endeavor that cost billions of dollars.

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.

Even if North Korea could develop one MRNA vaccine like PfizerThe country is unlikely to have the specialized equipment to transport and store it. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures of minus 75 degrees Celsius to keep the fragile MRNA material safe.

“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.”

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CNN’s Will Ripley, Paula Hancocks and Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.

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