Espionage is a habit well-baked into U.S. history—though at times it has created headaches with allies who have found themselves on the other end of American spying.
In 2013, it was revealed that the NSA and CIA had been tapping Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone for years. As more reports of U.S. prying into the German government emerged months later, an American intelligence official was even asked to leave the embassy in Berlin over allegations of spying, with Merkel herself describing the situation as a “clear contradiction to trusting cooperation.”
And Germany isn’t the only ally that’s felt aggrieved: the French government was outraged in 2015 after news broke that the U.S. had been spying on then President François Hollande and his predecessors. Hollande called his American counterpart Barack Obama and said he received an assurance that Washington would limit its “unacceptable” spying “among allies.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that habit hasn’t stopped. In recent weeks, a scattering of allegedly leaked Pentagon documents, some purportedly only meant to be accessible to those with high U.S. security clearance, were posted across social platforms like Discord, Telegram, and Twitter. TIME could not independently verify how authentic the documents were, but they reportedly included information on U.S. assessments of the war in Ukraine as well as intelligence on diplomatic allies.
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At least two of the documents, the Korea Herald reports, detailed internal discussions among South Korea’s officials concerning the U.S. pressuring the East Asian nation to help supply weapons to Ukraine amid Seoul’s hesitancy. The information was reportedly based in part on intercepted communication signals.
Yang Uk, a military and defense analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, tells TIME that official ties between the two countries will not necessarily be gravely affected after this incident, but the idea of espionage amongst allies may hurt general South Korean opinion about the U.S. The office of South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol was quick to assert on Monday that “the alliance is still strong,” but Yang tells TIME: “I think the Korean public is really upset that the U.S. is not trusting South Korea.”
A Pentagon official told CNN the U.S. Defense Department is investigating the document leak, and South Korea’s government on Sunday said it will discuss “issues raised” by the exposé. Defense officials in Seoul have also repeated that South Korea’s policy on Ukraine will not change.
South Korea has been very cautious about directly supplying weapons to Ukraine—especially since South Korean law restricts the export of arms that would “affect” international peace. “We are putting efforts to maintain peaceful, good relations with every country in the world, including Russia,” Yoon told reporters in October.
Yang says that the publicization of the documents, however, makes cooperation with the U.S., especially on Ukraine policy, even more fraught. “Even if the President wants to help—it’s really hard to do [now],” he says.
The espionage issue has already been taken up by the country’s opposition party. The Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which controls the National Assembly, has been at best lukewarm about getting involved in the Ukraine crisis, and it’s become more vocal about U.S. interference. On Twitter on Monday, the party characterized the alleged American spying on Seoul as “a serious violation of national sovereignty.” One DPK member, Rep. Kim Eui-kyeom, suggested to the Herald that the U.S. spying revealed in the documents was “very intentional and premeditated,” while another DPK politician, Rep. Youn Kun-young, accused Yoon of sharing the blame, saying that his relocation of the presidential office last May “likely allowed the presidential office, the center of power and national security, to be spied on.”
Yoon is planning to visit Washington on April 26 to mark seven decades of alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, and his office denied the accusations that he bore any responsibility for the spying affair. A spokesperson for Yoon’s office told reporters that “if there are forces trying to exaggerate this incident ahead of the South Korea-U.S. summit or distort it to undermine the alliance, they will face the resistance of many people.”
The state visit later this month will be the first to the U.S. by a South Korean president since 2011, coming as the Biden administration attempts to shore up its relationships in an Indo-Pacific region fraught with security concerns from China to North Korea. The visit, according to the White House, is meant to deepen ties between the two countries. But a spying scandal just weeks before the summit may leave the countries’ friendship strained. Says Yang: “With the U.S.-Korea relations celebrating 70 years of alliance—this is kind of a disaster.”
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