CIA appears to have wiretapped South Korea’s National Security Office, intel leak shows

Posted on : 2023-04-10 16:31 KST Modified on : 2023-04-10 16:31 KST
The major revelations come mere weeks before President Yoon Suk-yeol’s slated state visit to the US
The flag of the presidential office of Korea stands behind an empty podium. (presidential office pool photo)
The flag of the presidential office of Korea stands behind an empty podium. (presidential office pool photo)

US intelligence agencies appear to have intercepted discussions by South Korea’s National Security Office about arms aid to Ukraine, leaked documents show. In 2013, revelations by Edward Snowden that the US had conducted widespread surveillance of its allies, including South Korea, made waves. Now, the latest leak comes just ahead of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit to the US.

The New York Times reported on Saturday (local time) that classified US documents leaked via social media revealed that South Korea’s National Security Office struggled to decide how to come up with a policy by early March about complying with US demands to provide artillery shells to Ukraine.

The news agency revealed the then-secretary for foreign affairs, Lee Mun-hee, told the then-national security advisor Kim Sung-han that the government “was mired in concerns that the US would not be the end user if South Korea were to comply with a US request for ammunition,” according to the CIA’s secret reports.

Lee stated that South Korea “could not violate its policy against supplying lethal aid, so officially changing the policy would be the only option,” if the government were to provide the US with ammunition.

To that, Kim was worried that a change of policy ahead of Yoon’s state visit to the US on April 26 could be perceived as a “trade” made with the US. Instead, Kim suggested selling 330,000 rounds of 155-millimeter artillery shells to Poland as a roundabout way of solving the issue.

The issue of South Korea’s assistance with lethal aid was brought to light in November 2022, with a report by the Wall Street Journal. In that article, it was reported that the US would purchase 100,000 rounds of 155mm artillery shells from South Korea and provide them to Ukraine. Both Kim and Lee, the two parties in this conversation, resigned last month.

Ukrainian troops shoot a howitzer at a Russian camp in Luhansk on April 5. (AP/Yonhap)
Ukrainian troops shoot a howitzer at a Russian camp in Luhansk on April 5. (AP/Yonhap)

The New York Times revealed that the CIA document containing the information labeled the source as “signals intelligence.” The Washington Post, which also accessed the documents, also reported that the information was attributed to that source.

“Signals intelligence” refers to information obtained through electronic devices, suggesting that the CIA eavesdropped on (illegally intercepted) conversations between key officials at the South Korean National Security Office.

US news outlets reported that these documents, as well as other intelligence produced by the CIA and the NSA, were compiled into a daily briefing format and sent to the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. It is also believed that more than 100 classified documents, most of which were top secret, that were authored around February 2023 were leaked.

South Korea’s presidential office reportedly held a meeting on Sunday, chaired by the new national security advisor, Cho Tae-yong, to discuss a response. A key presidential official stated that they would “consider countermeasures while reviewing past precedents and examples from other countries.”

However, the presidential office appeared to minimize the impact of the incident, saying that it does not fundamentally affect the relationship between South Korea and the US, or shake the South Korea-US alliance.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

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