North Korea has begun human testing of a COVID-19 vaccine the country is developing and the country’s vaccine developers are using manufacturing know-how stolen through “hacking activities” conducted late last year, Daily NK learned from a source in the country yesterday. 

Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials have been completed so far, while Phase 3 clinical trials are currently underway on suspected COVID-19 patients, according to the source. 

The Biological Industry Research Center of Kim Il Sung University is reportedly handling major research on the vaccine development.

While North Korea still claims that the country has no confirmed COVID-19 cases, the source’s report suggests that North Korean authorities are conducting vaccine tests on patients who are suffering from symptoms similar to COVID-19. 

North Korean authorities have recently created a new “hacking organization” dedicated to stealing information on COVID-19, including vaccine development technology, based on the source’s account. 

According to the source, the new organization is called Bureau 325 and it operates under the Reconnaissance General Bureau while receiving direct orders from the Central Committee. The source claims that the group immediately reports major technology-related acquisitions to Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and that Kim and powerful party secretary Jo Yong Won are managing the group’s activities themselves.

In fact, North Korean hacking activities against vaccine manufacturers have skyrocketed since the fourth quarter of last year. Mun Chong Hyun, the head of the ESTsecurity Security Response Center (ESRC), told Daily NK that there were continuous, concentrated North Korean hacking attacks on South Korean and overseas pharmaceutical companies from around early October of last year.

Disease control officials in Pyongyang spraying buses with disinfectant. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

“Because of the nature of cyber attacks, it’s hard to exactly confirm what kind of data North Korea stole, but it’s possible that some data was taken,” he told Daily NK. 

North Korea appears to have begun manufacturing vaccines by putting together the know-how it acquired through its hacking activities last year. 

However, not even North Korean authorities are certain how effective their independently developed vaccine is.

“They secured enough know-how through hacking, but they don’t have the capacity to produce [vaccines]. But because the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un] directly ordered a vaccine to be independently developed, they have to show something in the way of results,” the source told Daily NK. 

This means North Korean authorities are conducting trials to manufacture a vaccine without confirming its medical efficacy and reporting the results up the chain of command.

South Korean pharmaceutical companies have yet to fully acquire the know-how to produce COVID-19 vaccines, and international companies that have succeeded in developing vaccines have yet to resolve issues regarding the storage of their vaccines. Since COVID-19 vaccine development requires fairly exacting technical skills, it may not be easy for North Korea to manufacture its own vaccine in the short term given the country’s overall circumstances. 

Given that Kim Jong Un is directly involved in developing COVID-19 vaccines, and the fact that the authorities have recently created a new hacking group dedicated to COVID-19 vaccines, there is the possibility that North Korea’s hacking activities aimed at vaccine manufacturers may increase in the future.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time reporters and covers North Korean economic and diplomatic issues, including workers dispatched abroad. Jang has a M.A. in Sociology from University of North Korean Studies and a B.A. in Sociology from Yonsei University. She can be reached at skjang(at)