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The U.S. intelligence leaks have sparked outrage in South Korea

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. government says it is working with its allies to limit damage from the leak of top secret documents. One of those allies is South Korea. The documents that turned up on the internet purport to show that the United States was eavesdropping on South Korea's presidential office. Awkward. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is on the line from Seoul. Hey there, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did the documents say about South Korea?

KUHN: The documents appear to say that South Korea's leadership is in a bind because the U.S. wants South Korea to export weapons to Ukraine. But the South Koreans are concerned that if their weapons are found on battlefields in Europe, then Russia could hit back at them by helping North Korea either militarily or with nuclear technology. That concern is not new. We reported on this last year. And since then, Seoul has stuck to its export rules, which are that they don't sell weapons to countries at war. What they have been doing, though, is backfilling ammunition stocks of the U.S. and Poland and selling Poland tanks, howitzers and ammo to replace what they send to Ukraine. The documents suggest that Seoul is very nervous that President Biden might put their president on the spot by asking him to sell more ammo.

INSKEEP: Well, I appreciate this clarification. You're telling me that the revelations in the documents aren't that new, that this was public knowledge. So I guess the real revelation is that the United States was spying, or at least confirmation. As best you can tell, how was the United States doing that?

KUHN: The documents suggested they intercepted some communications within the presidential office. They were basically eavesdropping. Now, President Yoon Suk Yeol has moved his office into the defense ministry building, which he says is more secure. Opposition politicians disagree. Everybody knows the U.S. has the means to eavesdrop and that allies spy on each other. That's not new. A decade ago, you remember ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden disclosed that the U.S. wiretapped the South Korean embassy in D.C. The issue is more how South Korea deals with it. And the Yoon administration so far has dismissed the documents as forged. They seem unwilling to press the U.S. for explanations or an apology. And this has led to public criticism, especially from the opposition, that Yoon is basically selling out South Korea's interests in order to cozy up to Washington.

INSKEEP: All this debate comes less than two weeks before a summit between the two presidents, between the president of South Korea, the president of the United States, President Biden. How might this affect the summit and the alliance?

KUHN: Well, we don't know what the outcome is going to be. But we certainly know what both sides want going into this summit. South Korea mostly wants extra protection from the U.S. against North Korea, which today launched another intermediate range ballistic missile. The U.S. wants South Korea's help in dealing with China and also arming Ukraine. One of the leaked documents suggests that Seoul is actually considering changing its arms exports rules to make this easier. I spoke to Kim Jong-dae, who is a former South Korean defense official and a visiting professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Here's what he had to say about it.

KIM JONG-DAE: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: "The U.S. started asking for artillery shells last September," he says. And in October, NATO's secretary general directly made the request to South Korea. And South Korea hasn't responded for over six months. But now that they have agreed to the state visit, he adds, they can no longer delay the decision. So Kim believes South Korea could change its rules. The document suggests as much as well. And artilleries therefore could end up on the battlefield in Ukraine. And that would be a big policy shift for Seoul. But perhaps Seoul might announce such a decision after the summit, so it doesn't look like a quid pro quo deal with the U.S.

INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks very much for the insights. It's always a pleasure talking with you.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN LUKAS BOYSEN'S "GOLDEN TIMES 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.