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Spying seen as complicating allies' summit

China Daily | Updated: 2023-04-15 07:43
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Leaked documents cast shadow over South Korean leader's Washington tour

SEOUL — Leaked intelligence documents suggesting Washington spied on Seoul have put South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in a delicate situation ahead of a state visit to the United States, the first such trip by a South Korean leader in 12 years.

The documents contain purportedly private conversations among senior South Korean officials about Ukraine, indicating that Washington may have conducted surveillance on a key Asian ally even as the two nations publicly vowed to reinforce their alliance.

Since taking office last year, Yoon has put a bolstered military partnership with the US at the heart of his foreign policy. The April 26 summit with US President Joe Biden is seen as crucial to winning a stronger US security commitment and resolving grievances over the Biden administration's economic and technology policies, The Associated Press commented.

The leaked documents were posted online as part of a major US intelligence breach. The papers viewed by media indicate that South Korea's National Security Council "grappled" with the US in early March over a US request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine.

The documents, which cited a signals intelligence report, said then-NSC director Kim Sung-han suggested the possibility of selling 330,000 rounds of 155mm munitions to Poland, since getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the US' ultimate goal.

South Korea, a growing arms exporter, has a policy of not supplying weapons to countries at war. It has not provided arms directly to Ukraine, although it has shipped humanitarian aid and joined US-led economic sanctions against Russia.

Yoon's government said it discussed the leaked papers with the US, and they agreed that "a considerable number" of the documents were fabricated. The South Korean government avoided any public complaints about the US and did not specify which documents were faked.

"There's no indication that the US, which is our ally, conducted (eavesdropping) on us with malicious intent," Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security director, told reporters on Tuesday at Dulles International Airport near Washington at the start of a trip aimed at preparing for the summit.

Criticism from liberals

Senior Biden administration officials have discussed the leaks with allies at high levels and sought to reassure them of the US government's commitment to safeguarding intelligence. The administration also sought to downplay the impact the leak would have on Yoon's upcoming visit.

The Yoon government's stance invited criticism from liberal rivals, who called on the government to lodge strong protests with the US. They also suspected what they call Yoon's hasty relocation of his presidential office to a Defense Ministry compound in central Seoul may have left the office vulnerable to wiretapping.

"As a sovereign nation, we must sternly respond to the spying of state secrets, even if it was committed by an ally with whom (South Korea) has bonded over blood," Park Hong-geun, floor leader of the main liberal opposition Democratic Party, said.

The situation is unlikely to threaten the country's alliance with the US that was forged during the 1950-53 Korean War, many experts say.

"No big damage is expected on the (South) Korea-US alliance as it seems both governments share the view that they would focus on the alliance, more concretely on a successful state visit by Yoon," Bong Young-shik, an expert at Seoul's Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies, said.

If Yoon returns with some achievements, South Koreans will conclude that he put up with the spying allegations "because bigger matters were at stake", Bong said. But if the visit amounts to "a pomponly trip", people would question whether South Korea "made lots of concessions".

Agencies Via Xinhua

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