North Korea attempted to hack the computer systems of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to find information on its vaccine and treatments against coronavirus, according to media reports.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) reportedly disclosed the information to a closed-door session of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.
The NIS "informed us that North Korea had attempted to obtain technology including the vaccine and treatments against COVID through a cyber attack to hack into Pfizer," South Korean congressman Ha Tae-keung told reporters.
Pyongyang was the first country in the world to close its borders at the end of January 2020 in an attempt to protect itself from the pandemic that emerged in neighbouring China in December 2019 and has since swept across the globe, killing more than two million people.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says the country has not had any cases of coronavirus infection, but experts say this is unlikely given that neighbouring China is Pyongyang's main trading partner and supporter.
The border closure has increased pressure on the North Korean economy, which is already under international sanctions because of the nuclear and ballistic missile programme developed by the communist regime.
According to Western experts, North Korea has an army of several thousand highly trained hackers who have already attacked companies, institutions and research centres, particularly in South Korea.
Pyongyang has also stolen more than 300 million dollars worth of crypto money in recent months through computer attacks designed to finance its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, according to a confidential UN report published a few days ago.
While claiming to be free of the virus, North Korea has recently applied for Covid-19 vaccines, of which it should receive nearly two million doses, according to the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), the body coordinating the UN's COVAX programme which pools procurement and distributes vaccines to poor countries.
This is the first official confirmation that Pyongyang has requested international assistance, even though North Korea's medical infrastructure is considered totally inadequate to deal with a large-scale epidemic.