As governments around the world set out to secure COVID-19 vaccines, North Korean authorities have also reportedly issued an order to secure as much vaccine as quickly as possible.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Thursday, the Central Committee recently ordered the Ministry of Public Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to focus all their abilities on securing vaccines, even if that means putting aside other activities.

Accordingly, a working group and other officials from the Ministry of Public Health have already been dispatched to China, said the source. The ministry and the Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department are receiving daily situation reports from the team in China on vaccine acquisition.

Moreover, the officials sent to China are currently carrying out comprehensive analysis reports on the side effects of COVID-19 such as post-inoculation pain or fever.

North Korea apparently has a reporting structure in place in which Kim Yo Jong – the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – is overseeing the general content of the vaccine reports, directly reporting the results to her brother. It appears North Korean authorities consider the acquisition of vaccines such a matter of life or death that Kim Jong Un is receiving real-time reports on the vaccines.

The Central Committee has also reportedly ordered that all possible means and methods be mobilized so that North Korea can develop its own vaccines.

Currently, the Biological Industry Research Center of Kim Il Sung University is handling working-level research to develop a vaccine, assisted by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is handling “hacking”-related work. This means North Korean authorities have officially mobilized a hacking organization to secure information on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

covid quarantine
Disease control officials testing drivers for COVID-19 symptoms in Pyongyang’s Manggyongdae District. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

In fact, Reuters reported on Nov. 27 that hackers presumed to be working for North Korea attempted to hack UK-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Additionally, South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee late last month that North Korea “attempted to hack domestic [South Korean] pharmaceutical companies in relation to COVID-19 vaccines.” However, South Korea “blocked [the attacks],” reported the spy agency.

North Korea, however, is keeping silent on the suspicions surrounding the hacking attempts on pharmaceutical companies working on COVID-19 vaccines. This starkly contrasts with North Korea’s immediate refutation of a US government warning about North Korean hacking in August. Pyongyang said at the time that Washington was “peddling nonsense.”

Meanwhile, with attention focusing on a claim that Kim Jong Un was recently inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine, a high-ranking source in North Korea told Daily NK this “wasn’t true.” The source said even if North Korea had brought in a vaccine, it would not have injected the “Supreme Leader” first prior to confirming its safety.

The source added that North Korea is trying to acquire US, German or British-made vaccines since the country’s leadership places little trust in Chinese-made vaccines. Because of this, he said, Kim would not have taken a Chinese-made vaccine.

Given that North Korea’s leadership prefers vaccines developed by Western countries, it seems North Korean hacking attempts of pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere will escalate.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to