By Andrew Jeong 

SEOUL--North Korean hackers have targeted at least six pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea working on Covid-19 treatments, according to people familiar with the matter, as the regime seeks sensitive information it could sell or weaponize.

The firms include previously unreported targets in the U.S.: Johnson & Johnson and Maryland-based Novavax Inc., which are both working on experimental vaccines, the people said. The list also includes three South Korean companies with Covid-19 drugs in earlier clinical trials, Genexine Inc., Shin Poong Pharmaceutical Co. and Celltrion Inc., they added.

North Korea had also tried infiltrating U.K.-based AstraZeneca PLC, whose vaccine co-developed with the University of Oxford, has been shown to be as much as 90% effective and is seeking emergency approval, the people said. On Friday, Reuters reported that suspected North Korean hackers had tried to break into the systems of AstraZeneca, citing unnamed sources.

It wasn't known whether the hackers succeeded in swiping useful information. But North Korea has coordinated attacks on the six companies since August, the people said.

The attacks contained digital fingerprints used in other North Korean campaigns against the State Department and South Korea's unification ministry, such as the use of the same IP addresses, the people said.

Shin Poong and Celltrion said they had received hacking attacks but hadn't detected any damage, according to spokesmen from both companies. The Shin Poong spokesman said the attacks were carried out over email. The Celltrion spokesman said the hacking attacks had accelerated sometime in the second half of 2020.

Johnson & Johnson remains vigilant against threats to its data, a spokesman said. A Novavax spokeswoman said the company is aware of the foreign threats and is working with "appropriate government agencies and commercial cybersecurity experts." Genexine is looking into the matter but hasn't found evidence of any hacking attempt, a spokesman said.

AstraZeneca declined to comment.

North Korea, Russia, China and Iran have backed hackers seeking to infiltrate drug companies working on Covid-19 treatments, according to a U.K. assessment earlier this year. Without naming any individual companies, Microsoft Corp. said Russia and North Korea had targeted online accounts of at least seven firms researching Covid-19 drugs and vaccines in the U.S., Canada, France, India and South Korea, according to a report published last month.

North Korea, despite a sanctions-strapped economy and limited internet access, has become one of the world's most elite global hacking outfits. The U.S. Justice Department has brought criminal charges against a North Korean operative believed to be linked with the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, 2016's cyber theft of $81 million from Bangladesh's central bank and 2017's ransomware attack called WannaCry.

Pyongyang, through its state media, has called the Justice Department charges "preposterous falsehoods and highhandedness." North Korea hasn't commented on any hacks involving Covid-19 vaccine developers.

Even if North Korea succeeded in pilfering Covid-19 treatment details, the Kim Jong Un regime would have limited direct use for it, Pyongyang watchers say. With rudimentary manufacturing facilities and modest health-care infrastructure, it is doubtful the country could produce any treatment from blueprints obtained through cyber espionage, they say.

North Korea has made repeated claims that it has zero coronavirus cases, having sealed off its borders and championed its "anti-epidemic" work for months. On its state-run Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang in May mentioned a Covid-19 vaccine under development by its public health ministry. But no further updates have been provided.

A more likely North Korean use for stolen intelligence on Covid-19 vaccines would be to sell it to a third-party drugmaker, likely in China, said Robert Potter, head of Internet 2.0, a cybersecurity company based in Canberra, Australia, who monitors Pyongyang's hacking behavior.

Another option, Mr. Potter added, would be to leverage knowledge of the targeted companies' networks from the attacks to demand payouts in return for restoring access to encrypted files--a ransomware attack--or crash a company's website.

North Korea remains a significant threat to Covid-19 drugmakers, the State Department said on Tuesday in response to an inquiry about Pyongyang's recent suspected attacks against drugmakers developing Covid-19 treatments.

"It is vital for governments, network defenders, and the public to stay vigilant and to work together to mitigate the cyber threat posed by North Korea," the State Department said.

The group suspected of being behind the North Korean effort targeting coronavirus vaccine developers is a unit well-known in global cybersecurity circles, according to people familiar with the matter. The U.S. government has previously referred to the group as "Kimsuky."

Since at least 2012, Kimsuky has largely focused on stealing national security intelligence from U.S., Japanese, and South Korean entities, according to the U.S. government. But the group appears to have begun operations aimed at global pharmaceutical companies this summer, as the rush for vaccines and drugs for the coronavirus accelerated, according to the people familiar with the matter.

For the Covid-19-related attacks, Kimsuky operatives attempted to lure in victims with phishing tactics, those people said. The hackers would pose as colleagues or trustworthy acquaintances by creating fake email accounts, then send out messages with benign-looking attachments or links. If the recipients clicked on them, the hackers could gain access to their computers, and, thus, user IDs or passwords, the people said.

The hackers had six companies listed either by name or with abbreviations such as "jnj" for Johnson & Johnson, according to one of the people and materials reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. .

Seoul's spy agency said last week in a closed-door meeting with South Korean lawmakers that it had foiled at least one attempted attack on at least one local pharmaceutical company but didn't elaborate, according to two legislators who attended the briefing. No corporation was named, they said.

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 02, 2020 04:32 ET (09:32 GMT)

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