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Ahead of Biden-Yoon Meeting, US Accused of Spying on South Korea

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FILE - A worker uncovers South Korean Thunder K9 howitzer in the Polish Navy port of Gdynia, Poland, Dec. 6, 2022. A leaked US memo allegedly describes discussions within South Korea’s presidential office about whether to provide weapons to Ukraine.

South Korea’s government is scrambling to contain the political and diplomatic fallout after U.S. media reported that the United States – the country’s longtime ally – spied on senior South Korean security officials.

The allegations surfaced Sunday, when The New York Times published details from a leaked U.S. memo allegedly describing discussions within South Korea’s presidential office about whether to provide weapons to Ukraine.

The memo was part of a larger batch of secret U.S. military and intelligence documents that have mysteriously appeared on social media – creating headaches and national security vulnerabilities for Washington and many of its allies.

Though the South Korea-focused intelligence report appeared to reveal little if any surprising or damaging information, it was reportedly based at least in part on so-called “signals intelligence,” suggesting Washington was spying on one of its most important allies.

The situation is awkward for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has aligned his country more closely with the United States and is preparing for a rare state visit to the White House later this month.

On Monday, South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party condemned the incident as a “clear infringement” of sovereignty and accused Yoon of overseeing lax security policies.

South Korea’s presidential office has pushed back on that criticism, accusing the opposition of damaging the U.S.-South Korea alliance and harming the national interest.

In a statement Tuesday, Yoon’s office said that "a large amount of information from the relevant document has been falsified,” adding that this was an assessment shared by South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Earlier Monday, South Korea’s military said Lee and Austin spoke at the request of the U.S. side. The conversation focused in part on the leaked documents, the South Korean readout said.

The U.S. Department of Defense has not said whether it believes any of the information in the South Korea-related document was fake. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US investigation ongoing

VOA has not been able to confirm the authenticity of any of the leaked batch of documents, which first appeared last month on social media websites, including Discord and 4Chan.

Analysts have detected what they believe are instances of forgeries in some of the documents related to Russia and Ukraine; however, U.S. officials have broadly responded as if the documents were authentic.

In a statement late Sunday, the Department of Defense said it “continues to review and assess the validity of the photographed documents," which it said "appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material.”

“An interagency effort has been stood up, focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners,” the Pentagon statement continued.

The Pentagon has referred the matter to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation, it added.

The topics addressed in the leaked documents are wide-ranging – including sensitive details on topics such as the war in Ukraine, Israeli domestic politics, and China.

South Korean deliberations

The document related to South Korea claims to show senior officials in Seoul debating whether to send weapons directly to Ukraine.

The Yoon administration has so far resisted Western calls to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, citing domestic laws that strictly regulate sending arms to war zones.

Instead, South Korea has found indirect ways to help Ukraine’s military, including by approving the sale of South Korean-made weapons to countries that are arming Ukraine.

Late last year, South Korea agreed to sell artillery shells to the United States. At the time, Seoul insisted the United States would be the ultimate destination for the weapons.

According to the leaked report cited by The New York Times, Yoon’s secretary for foreign affairs, Yi Mun-hui, said the South Korean government “was mired in concerns” that Washington would divert the weapons to Ukraine.

The memo also allegedly included other internal South Korean deliberations about how best to respond to U.S. pressure to arm Ukraine’s military.

Limited intelligence value

South Korean officials have repeatedly said their position on arming Ukraine has not changed, stressing they will only provide non-lethal aid.

Since South Korea’s position on Ukraine is not a secret, the intelligence damage may be limited, according to Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The leak, however, could undermine South Korean confidence in U.S. handling of sensitive information, Go said.

“In addition to the ethical implications of eavesdropping on allies, the United States has again shown it is incapable of safeguarding not only its own secrets, but the secrets of its closest allies,” Go added.

The United States has been accused of spying on South Korea in the past.

The most recent allegation occurred in 2013, when documents leaked by former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden suggested that the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on the South Korean Embassy and other diplomatic facilities in Washington.

Diplomatic fallout

The 2013 spying allegation did not disrupt U.S.-South Korea relations. So far, there is little evidence that the latest incident will be much different.

Though South Korean newspapers and television stations on Monday focused on the spying allegations, much of the criticism was directed toward Yoon, not the United States.

South Korea has not seen mass anti-U.S. protests since the late 2000s. Then, protesters were upset about imports of U.S. beef and the death of two young girls who were hit by a U.S. military vehicle.

Opinion polls now suggest South Koreans are overwhelmingly supportive of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

For that to change, something radical would have to emerge, said Ben Engel, research professor at the Institute of International Affairs at Seoul National University.

“The anti-American side of Korean politics is the progressives,” Engel said, “And from what I've seen they are busy blasting Yoon.”

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