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North Korean hackers targeted South Korean COVID-19 drug and vaccine makers

Stock photo of a hand holding up a vaccine shot (123rf)
Stock photo of a hand holding up a vaccine shot (123rf)

 North Korean hackers have attempted a cyberattack on local pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in recent weeks, international media reported Wednesday.

The Wall Street Journal said a North Korean-linked group, known as “Kimsuky,” has tried to break into six companies since August: US-based Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, British drugmaker AstraZeneca, and South Korea-based Genexine, Shin Poong Pharmaceutical and Celltrion. 

Reuters, a few hours later, reported that a total of nine companies had been targeted, adding South Korea’s Boryung Pharmaceutical, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the University of Tuebingen in Germany to the WSJ’s list.

Genexine is developing a COVID-19 vaccine, while Celltrion, Shin Poong and Boryung are working on treatments.

It’s unclear whether the hackers have succeeded in stealing information from any of the companies, the report said.

Shin Poong and Celltrion said they had been hit with attacks, but had not found any damage, while Genexine said it had not found any evidence of a hacking attempt.

South Korea’s spy agency last week told lawmakers that the country had thwarted North Korean hacking attempts on its pharmaceutical firms developing coronavirus vaccines and treatments, but did not elaborate as to which firms were targeted or specify any dates.

Pyongyang’s latest infiltrations appear to be the regime’s efforts to hunt for COVID-19 information that could aid its own vaccine development as well as to monetize the stolen intellectual property. While the North has repeatedly insisted it has zero coronavirus cases, the country remains on high alert over COVID-19 and has taken some of the most draconian measures anywhere to prevent an outbreak.

North Korea recently laid land mines in border areas with China to fend off the coronavirus, in addition to closing the border with the country early this year, according to the NIS. The country also stipulated in the emergency law that officials who fail to control COVID-19 could be sentenced to death.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already been inoculated with an experimental coronavirus vaccine provided by China, according to an analyst, citing Japanese intelligence sources.

The Ministry of Unification, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, on Thursday said it was not aware of the latest cyberattack on local pharmaceutical firms, while adding there had been no hacking attempts against the ministry.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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