TOKYO — North Korea tried to hack into the servers of U.S. drugmaker Pfizer to steal coronavirus vaccine information, South Korean intelligence officials reported Tuesday, despite leader Kim Jong Un's professed view that his isolated dictatorship is untouched by the pandemic.
Lawmakers were informed of the findings by South Korea's National Intelligence Service at a regular closed-door hearing of the National Assembly's intelligence committee.
"The cyberattacks included an attempt to steal covid-19 vaccine and treatment technology, to which Pfizer was subject," Ha Tae-keung, an opposition lawmaker and member of the committee, told reporters. He added that South Korea had detected a 32 percent year-on-year jump in the number of cyberattack attempts from North Korea.
It was not clear when the Pfizer hack occurred or if it was successful. A Pfizer representative said she was not immediately able to comment. The coronavirus vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech is one of the few that has been approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization.
The statement by South Korean officials is the latest accusation against North Korean hackers for attempting to steal vaccine technology, highlighting Pyongyang’s alleged ongoing campaign to obtain sensitive information through nefarious means and its growing cyber capabilities.
In November, Microsoft said North Korean and Russian hackers had tried to steal data from pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers, although it said the efforts were mostly unsuccessful. The U.S. government also accused Chinese hackers of targeting vaccine makers, while South Korea said it had foiled a North Korean attempt to hack into companies developing coronavirus vaccines in that country last year.
Although it claims to be free of the virus, North Korea has requested coronavirus vaccines and is set to receive nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine, according to the Gavi Alliance, part of the United Nations-backed Covax effort that aims to deliver vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people.
North Korea closed its border with China soon after the coronavirus began spreading, cutting trade to a trickle and undermining its already weak economy.
But hackers have become an increasingly important lifeline for the nuclear-armed regime, especially since the pandemic struck.
Last week, U.N. experts said their inquiry into the theft of $281 million in assets from a cryptocurrency exchange in September “strongly suggests” links to North Korea, according to media reports.
In a leaked report, the independent sanctions monitors accused Pyongyang of using stolen funds from its hacking program to support its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and circumvent sanctions.
In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department formally indicted a North Korean man, Park Jin Hyok, alleging he belonged to an organization known as the Lazarus Group, on charges related to the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017.
Park was also accused of involvement in an $81 million heist on the Bangladesh central bank and a 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in apparent revenge for its movie “The Interview” — a spoof about an assassination attempt on the North Korean leader.