Despite the claims of supreme leader Kim Jong-un that the isolated kingdom has not recorded a single case of Covid-19, vaccine developers are thought to be testing their product on people with virus-like symptoms.
A source told Seoul-based outlet Daily NK that scientists at Kim Il Sung University are using expertise gathered through ‘hacking activities’ to carry out their work at a biological research institute.
Claims of North Korean hacking had surfaced in the West last year before any of the vaccines currently in use in Europe and the US had even been approved, with Microsoft pointing the finger at a shadowy operation called the Lazarus Group.
The North Korean source said the ruling party had established a specialist unit called Bureau 325 devoted to hacking intelligence on Covid-19, including on vaccines.
Receiving orders directly from the party’s central committee, the secretive bureau is said to report to Kim’s influential sister Kim Yo-jong.
Based on hacking activities late last year, scientists have apparently started testing their product on patients with symptoms similar to those caused by Covid-19.
The source said that Phase I and Phase II trials had already been completed, with large-scale Phase III trials now underway.
How a mass vaccine trial would work is unclear when Kim’s regime claims that the virus is not circulating in the country, after the Chinese border was closed last year.
But North Korea has long been suspected of trying to steal vaccine secrets, with Microsoft linking it last November to a series of attempted cyber-attacks.
The Lazarus Group, which is under US sanctions as a suspected state-backed hacking unit, allegedly posed as job recruiters in an attempt to steal login credentials.
Most of the targets in Canada, France, India, South Korea and the United States were ‘directly involved’ in researching vaccines and treatments, the software giant said.
Microsoft also pointed the finger at a Russian state-backed hacking group, while the US says that China has also tried to target vaccine manufacturers.
Separately, South Korea’s intelligence agency said it had foiled hacking attempts from the North which were aimed at companies developing vaccines.
Seoul’s spy agency warns it is possible that the virus is circulating in the North because of its links to China where the pandemic began.
While touting its success in supposedly keeping the virus at bay, Kim’s regime has also imposed tough restrictions including closing all points of entry to the kingdom.
The WHO says that public transport and inter-state movement have been rigidly restricted in North Korea while gatherings of more than five have been banned.
The measures are compounding economic problems in the country, which is already under severe strain from US sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Reliable economic data is sparse but North Korea’s GDP may have shrunk by 8.5 per cent last year, according to analytics firm Fitch Solutions.
The Seoul-based Hana Institute of Finance estimated a contraction of up to 10 per cent, worse than some Western countries.
Chinese customs data for 2020 showed trade with North Korea plunging by more than 80 per cent, cutting off the country’s main lifeline to the outside world.
Kim announced a new five-year plan to revitalise the economy at a party congress earlier this month where his regime displayed what appeared to be a new missile.
North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or fired its longest-range ballistic missiles since 2017, but talks with the US stalled under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Kim has signalled he no longer feels bound by a self-imposed moratorium on missile tests.