After dozens of pages of classified Pentagon documents were leaked online, the U.S. has been accused of spying on South Korea, sparking condemnation from some lawmakers over the revelation.
Since as early as Feb. 28, a trove of military records have circulated on social media platforms including Discord. The supposedly leaked intelligence is at least partially authentic and includes briefings for high-level Pentagon officials focusing on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
But among the heaps of data, there’s also evidence that the U.S. has kept tabs—secretly—on its friends, including Israel and Ukraine. In South Korea this week, opposition lawmakers called the “premeditated” spying a violation of national sovereignty.
U.S. officials have been scrambling to mend ties with its allies after its espionage was revealed, but experts say it’s an open secret that the U.S. spies on its adversaries and allies alike.
“The leak shouldn’t be a surprise to government officials who have been paying attention,” Matthew Fuhrmann, a Texas A&M University professor whose research focuses on international relations, told VICE World News.
In 2013, documents leaked by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the NSA had been conducting extensive surveillance on the communications of foreign leaders and allies, including former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Six years later, the UK’s GCHQ spy agency was reported to have overseen a mass surveillance program called “Mastering the Internet,” which involved collecting phone and internet data from several countries, including allies, without seeking individual warrants.
Without naming the U.S., Fuhrmann said countries often spy on allies to gauge the future strength of the alliance and anticipate their key decisions. Spying also provides an additional source of information to cross check against direct communications, Fuhrmann added.
Robert Huish, an associate professor in International Development Studies at Canada’s Dalhousie University, said spying on allies can be “just as important as diplomacy.”
Though spying on allies may be common practice, the Pentagon leak has been met with outrage in South Korea, one of the countries that the U.S. has been accused of eavesdropping on.
Among the confidential documents, a sensitive conversation was found to have taken place between high-level South Korean officials on whether to sell weapons that could be used in Ukraine, thus violating national laws on supplying arms to a country at war. One of the advisers suggests sending 330,000 rounds of artillery shells to Poland instead to avoid appearing to have been pressured by the U.S.
The report has prompted concerns in Seoul, with South Korea’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea, questioning how the U.S. was able to intercept such a classified conversation in the presidential office. The Yoon administration denied that the U.S. could have eavesdropped on conversations in the presidential office and accused its main opposition party of trying to use “negative suspicions” for political gains.
In an effort to mend ties, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held phone calls with his South Korean counterpart on Tuesday. Both said that a significant portion of the documents were fabricated. Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also met with Ukrainian officials that same day. Blinken said he spoke to U.S. allies to “reassure them about our own commitment to safeguarding intelligence.”
Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst, said the ostensible revelation was bound to ruffle some feathers in the U.S.’ relationship with South Korea, at a time when alliance cooperation is becoming increasingly important.
“From Seoul’s optics, the latest development could lend the appearance of its privacy and prerogatives having been violated,” she told VICE World News.
Though the extent of the leak has not yet been determined, it risks jeopardizing the upcoming U.S.-South Korea summit, during which the U.S. was likely going to call on South Korea to send weapons directly to Ukraine, said Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics at the University of Oxford’s New College whose research covers international security in the Koreas.
“South Korea’s indirect transfer of weapons to assist Ukraine, via Poland, is well-known, but these leaks highlight South Korea’s ongoing foreign policy dilemmas,” Howell told VICE World News.
Though South Korea was one of the first Asian countries to declare its support for Ukraine, it’s also tried to prevent incensing Moscow, which Seoul has viewed as a potential partner in trying to combat a growing North Korean threat.
Now, these documents could place Yoon in a compromising position as he seeks not to strain Seoul’s relations with Washington, as well as Moscow and Beijing, but also avoid being seen as merely a “puppet of U.S. directives,” Howell said.