South Korea Says Some Alleged U.S. Intel Leaks ‘Were Forged,’ But Won’t Say Which Ones

Former Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to declare his bid for presidency at a memo
Kim Min-Hee/Getty Images

The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol told reporters on Tuesday that a “significant number” of documents alleging to be American intelligence information were “forged” and did not represent authentic classified information, but did not specify which documents were “forged” and which may be real.

Several leftist outlets in the United States published alleged intelligence and defense leaks out of the U.S. government over the weekend. The New York Times presented the alleged documents as a “trove” of leaked, genuine information, most of it involving Washington’s stance on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

South Korea became embroiled in the ensuing controversy – which has engulfed the Pentagon in a major effort to both confirm the authenticity of the documents and find the source of the leak of those proven real – in the context of one document, allegedly a CIA “signals intelligence” dispatch detailing a conversation between two South Korean national security officials.

According to the alleged leaks, presidential secretary for foreign affairs Lee Moon-hee told National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han that Yoon’s conservative administration had reservations about selling military hardware to the United States. The administration of leftist President Joe Biden had requested the purchase of South Korean ammunition to replace some of what was sent to Ukraine, intended to be used in the fight against Russia. The South Korean officials were concerned that Biden would send the Korean artillery to Ukraine, as well, involving South Korea in a military conflict against Russia in which it had no interest in participating.

Seoul has committed to sending Ukraine humanitarian aid but has refused to provide weapons, despite intense pressure from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO.

In addition to revealing potential discord between Seoul and Washington, the fact that the alleged document claimed to document “signals intelligence” suggests that the United States is spying on South Korea, one of its most loyal allies – outraging political leaders in the east Asian country.

The timing of the alleged leaks proved particularly problematic for Yoon, a political conservative who has prioritized elevating the relationship with America, as his office prepares for him to visit Washington on April 26. Yoon is expected to be the guest of honor at a White House state dinner – Biden’s second since taking office – and address the U.S. Congress on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of American-South Korean diplomatic relations. The alleged leaks have also caused a domestic political firestorm as the leftist Democratic Party condemns Yoon for moving the presidential offices out of the president’s office, the Blue House, and into the Defense Ministry headquarters, where Yoon insisted that the security of South Korean political operations would be better protected.

Yoon’s office initially requested on Monday that journalists allow it time to contact the United States and clarify the nature of the documents and if they were true representations of American intelligence. On Tuesday, the presidential office published a statement asserting that many of the leaks in question were “forged,” but not clarifying if the leaks involving South Korea were real.

South Korea joins Ukraine and Russia in asserting that the documents are, at least in part, fabricated.

“The defense chiefs of the two countries agreed on the fact that a significant number of the documents in question were forged,” the statement read, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily.

A top deputy national security adviser, Kim Tae-hyo similarly told reporters before flying to Washington on Tuesday that “a great deal of disclosed information was fabricated,” without elaborating.

While not discussing the South Korea leak in detail, the presidential office called any claim that the CIA or other American government agency was spying on Seoul “absurd and false.” Rather than dismiss the possibility that U.S. officials would wiretap or spy on the South Korean government, however, the office insisted that doing so was impossible because of security provisions in the relocated presidential office.

“The Yongsan presidential office is a military facility and has established and operated a wiretapping prevention system that is much stronger than that in the past at the Blue House,” Yoon’s office asserted.

JoongAng Daily also quoted an anonymous “presidential official” denying that the alleged leaks would damage the relationship between the two countries.

“If there was a wiretapping or eavesdropping issue, it would be a very important matter, but the Korea-U.S. alliance is also a very important issue on a different level,” the official claimed. “The relationship of trust of our alliance in the larger framework is ironclad, and within that framework, we will take necessary measures while figuring out the facts.”

Another anonymous presidential official discussed the particular alleged leak regarding Ukraine with the Yonhap news agency and suggested that the Yoon government does not yet know if Kim Sung-han, who abruptly left his post in the national security offices last month, ever did express the concerns in the reports.

“They [Yoon officials] believe that a reported conversation early last month … regarding Seoul’s position on whether to supply ammunition to Ukraine was not made inside the presidential building, if ever,” Yonhap reported.

The Pentagon issued statements to reporters on Monday suggesting that the U.S. government does believe that at least some of the reports on the alleged leaks – citing alleged government documents surfacing in online forums early this year – are real.

“The Department of Defense is working around the clock to look at the scope and scale of the distribution, the assessed impact and our mitigation measures. We’re still investigating how this happened, as well as the scope of the issue,” Chris Meagher, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, told a press briefing.

“There have been steps to take a closer look at how this type of information is distributed and to whom. We’re also still trying to assess what might be out there,” he continued. “We of course, condemn any unauthorized disclosure of classified information and we’re taking this very seriously.”

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