North Korea recently imported some COVID-19 vaccine samples from Russia and China, but these samples are being used for research and development purposes, not for inoculating North Koreans, Daily NK has learned. 

A high-level source told Daily NK on May 6 that that scientists at biology labs at Kim Il Sung University and other research facilities are analyzing the vaccine samples in the hopes of making copies. 

Daily NK was unable to confirm the manufacturers of the vaccines. The source explained, however, that since the scientists are using the vaccines for research purposes, it appears that a small number of doses of the vaccines along with samples entered the country.

Russian media reports recently claimed that North Korea had received a small amount of the Sputnik V vaccine for testing purposes. However, the Russian embassy in North Korea refuted this claim, releasing a statement saying that “the borders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continue to remain closed” and that “no pharmaceuticals, including vaccines, have been delivered here.”

This suggests that North Korea did not get the vaccines through official channels. Instead, the country likely procured the vaccines through other means. 

As a part of their attempts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine domestically, North Korean authorities have reportedly utilized the newly-established Bureau 325. Bureau 325, an organization within the Reconnaissance General Bureau, has allegedly carried out continuous cyberattacks to steal data from Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines.

The authorities reportedly dispatched professional hackers involved in these attacks to North Korean research facilities so they could deliver the stolen data and allow scientists to begin their analyses immediately. 

Within North Korea, the authorities claim that they have all of the technology needed to produce vaccines domestically. However, it is not likely that North Koreans scientists have the capacity to perform high-quality research. 

Moreover, many in North Korea are expressing doubts about the credibility of the country’s vaccine research, according to the source. 

humanitarian support vaccines
North Korean state media reported on Jan. 30, 2020, that it was making every effort to combat an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Nonetheless, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reportedly receiving frequent briefings regarding vaccine development and has continuously emphasized the importance of developing a vaccine.

In the meantime, North Korean elites and people living near the Sino-North Korean border with access to outside information are reportedly aware of other countries’ supply and demand of vaccines and the progress of inoculations worldwide.

According to the source, Pyongyang residents and those near the border are aware that people in countries like New Zealand and Israel have returned to their pre-COVID lives and can even go out and about without wearing masks.

In contrast, North Korea was scheduled to receive some vaccine doses between February and May as a part of the international vaccine equity project COVAX. However, the delivery of the vaccines has not gone according to schedule.

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, a Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) spokesperson said that the delivery of vaccines to North Korea would “[depend] on the supply situation” but that “a COVID-19 vaccine introduction could be envisaged in the second half of 2021.”

As import delays of vaccines into North Korea go on for longer than expected, the North Korean authorities have ramped up propaganda claiming that a vaccine is not a “cure-all” solution, even as they begin preparations to introduce vaccines.

The North Korean government’s criticism of vaccines as a “cure-all” appears to be an attempt to quell anxiety among ordinary North Koreans, who have become increasingly skeptical of their government’s disease control policies.

*Translated by S & J

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.