The Biden foreign policy is facing another diplomatic setback at the worst possible time. This time, it’s a spy scandal affecting the U.S.’s historic ally of South Korea.
The United States is currently having to manage the duel crises of a China showdown in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the proxy war it has been waging to bolster Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression.
A developing spy scandal revealed by Department of Defense documents that were leaked onto social media, referred to by historical allusion to as a new “Pentagon Papers, sheds light on the diplomatic tightrope that the Biden administration has been treading to manage both conflicts.
The New York Times reported on the Pentagon Papers leak, lending credibility to the sourcing of the report, although it is left up to readers to draw their own conclusions about the content of the leak.
The Times report makes it clear that the leak concerns South Korea’s reluctance to be drawn into a proxy war with Russia by providing ammunition to the U.S. that may end up in Ukraine.
“When reports emerged late last year that South Korea had agreed to sell artillery shells to help the United States replenish its stockpiles, it insisted that their ‘end user’ should be the U.S. military,” the report states. “But internally, top aides to President Yoon Suk Yeol were worried that their American ally would divert them to Ukraine.”
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s top foreign advisers were “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.”
Controversially, the “secret report was based on signals intelligence, which meant that the United States has been spying on one of its major allies in Asia,” the Times noted.
In a intriguing twist, the South Korean officials involved in the diplomatic affair, Yi Mun-hui, the secretary for foreign affairs, and Kim Sung-han, the National Security Adviser, stepped down suddenly last month for “unclear reasons.”
The Times report points to a group of opposition lawmakers that held a news conference in South Korea who denounced the United States for spying. They said the leaked documents’ revelations may be “just the tip of the iceberg,” and they “strongly urged Washington to launch an investigation and ensure that similar acts did not happen again.”
“This is a clear violation of our sovereignty by the United States and a super-scale security breach on the South Korean part,” the lawmakers said.
The Pentagon Papers leak also suggest that the Biden administration pressed the South Korean government to send deadly aid despite the latter’s official policy of not providing lethal weapons to countries at war.
Former National Security Adviser Kim had “suggested the possibility” of selling 330,000 rounds of 155-millimeter artillery shells to Poland, the Times noted. Kim added that “getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the ultimate goal of the United States.”
Former foreign affairs secretary Yi believed it might be possible for Poland to agree to being called “the end user” for purposes of sending the ammunition destined for Ukraine, but that South Korea would need to “verify what Poland would do.” Nonetheless, this arrangement would contradict the South Korean government’s policy that forbids military aid to countries at war.
Yang Uk, a weapons expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, provided the Times with analysis of the revelations.
“South Korea’s position has been that it will cooperate with the United States while not clashing with Russia,” he said, adding, “The documents leaked put South Korea in a more difficult position.”
He also expanded on the implications of the damaging revelation that the U.S. spied on its ally.
“It’s reasonable to suspect that the United States spies on top defense and security officials in Seoul, but it’s bad news for the general public ahead of the South Korea-U.S. summit,” he added. “People will ask, ‘We have been allies for seven decades, and you still spy on us?’”
Follow Kyle Becker on Twitter @kylenabecker.