Report: Conservative South Korea Worried U.S. Would Drag It into Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 21: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) welcomes President of Ukraine V
Drew Angerer/Getty Images // Inset: Kim Hong-ji/Pool Photo via AP, File

Alleged confidential U.S. government leaks to left-wing media over the weekend included information from documents, allegedly sourced from intercepting conversations among South Korean officials, indicating that the conservative government of President Yoon Suk-yeol was concerned that leftist President Joe Biden would drag Seoul into the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The New York Times claimed this weekend to have obtained a “trove of leaked documents,” alongside other establishment documents such as the Washington Post, regarding the Biden administration’s involvement in aiding Ukraine against the ongoing Russian invasion of the country. Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, colonizing its Crimean peninsula that year, but Washington, under then-President Barack Obama, reacted tepidly to the news. In 2022, Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced a “special operation” to oust Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, escalating the then-eight-year-old war into a full-scale invasion that Biden vowed to invest heavily in opposing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) (Adam Berry/Getty Images, AP)

Both the governments of Ukraine and Russia have denied the authenticity of the leaks. The New York Times claimed on Saturday that “U.S. officials” had confirmed that the documents were “legitimate” at one point but claimed the items that the left-wing newspaper obtained were “modified.” On Monday, South Korea’s National Defense agency denied that any wiretapping or other espionage on Washington’s part could have occurred at its headquarters, where the conversations that appear in the alleged leaks were likely to have occurred, if the leaks were true.

The South Korean government has not, at press time, addressed in detail if the concerns Seoul allegedly presented in the leaks are authentic.

One of the alleged documents in the “trove,” the Korea JoongAng Daily detailed, was an alleged CIA report on intercepted communications between South Korean officials. The document allegedly indicated that Yoon’s government was concerned that Korean military hardware, specifically artillery shells, sold to the United States could end up in the hands of the Ukrainian military, involving Seoul in the conflict with Russia.

The alleged document claimed that Foreign Affairs Secretary Yi Mun-hui told National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han that the Yoon administration generally was “mired in concerns that the U.S. would not be the end user if South Korea were to comply with a U.S. request for ammunition.”

“In particular, Korean presidential aides were described as worried that Biden would call Yoon to press him on the issue,” JoongAng Daily added.

Under former President Moon Jae-in, a leftist, South Korea moved away from America’s orbit, strengthening ties with Russia and seeking closer relations with North Korea, which it has been at war with for over half a century. Yoon, a conservative, succeeded Moon last year with a plan to restore the debilitated ties with Washington and take a harder line on North Korea, including emphasizing condemnation of the communist country’s human rights atrocities. Yoon’s calls for a more active American role in combatting China and North Korea, in particular, have caused some tension with Biden, who in the past has denied that the Chinese Communist Party is a threat to the United States. Biden has also appeared to ignore Yoon’s requests that South Korea play a more active role in managing American nuclear assets in his country. 

The alleged leaks could present a new wedge between the two leaders just weeks before Yoon is scheduled to visit the United States and address the U.S. Congress. Yoon is expected to meet with Biden in Washington on April 26, and the president is expected to host a state dinner, a lavish and formal occasion Biden has presided over only once before, for French President Emmanuel Macron. Both Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress invited Yoon to address a joint session, the first time a South Korean president will be welcomed on that stage since 2013.

“With this year marking the 70th anniversary of the alliance between our two countries, it is an especially important time to reflect on the achievements of our partnership and to reaffirm our shared commitment to democracy, economic prosperity, and global peace,” the congressional letter inviting Yoon to address a joint session read.

Seoul initially responded to the reports this weekend by asserting that it needed time to “finish figuring out the situation.”

“Once the two countries finish figuring out the situation, we plan to request appropriate measures from the U.S. if necessary,” a Yoon administration official said at a press conference on Monday, according to the South Korean news service Yonhap. “That process will proceed based on a relationship of trust formed between two allies.” The official noted the reports on the leaked documents have not yet been verified as true and that a U.S. government investigation is underway.

The Ministry of National Defense separately addressed the situation on Monday, insisting that no vulnerabilities in the security and confidentiality of its operations existed.

“Sufficient measures have been taken to prevent eavesdropping and wiretapping at the Defense Ministry and Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) buildings,” spokesperson Jeon Ha-gyu told reporters, adding that “no change” has occurred in Seoul’s Ukraine policy. South Korea has offered Ukraine humanitarian aid but refused calls to arm its military.

No government official has questioned the authenticity of the reports’ content on the record. An unnamed “senior official” told the Korea Times, however, that confirming that the South Korean government is in talks to clarify the origin of these documents with the Biden administration “does not mean that we are confirming whether there was an attempt at wiretapping and measures will be taken after knowing what happened exactly.”

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