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South Korea reacts to U.S. document leaks

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The U.S. and foreign governments are in damage control mode following the leak of U.S. intelligence documents. The documents appear to show the U.S. eavesdropping on both adversaries and allies. This could not come at a more sensitive time for South Korea as it gears up for a presidential summit in Washington in less than two weeks. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The documents suggest that the U.S. listened in on conversations going on inside South Korea's presidential office. President Yoon Suk-yeol's aides, they showed, were stressing out about U.S. requests to send artillery shells to Ukraine. Kim Jong-dae, a former defense official, now a visiting professor at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies, explains.

KIM JONG-DAE: (Through interpreter) The U.S. started asking for shells last September 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 this state visit, they can no longer delay the decision.

KUHN: South Korea says its own rules prevent it from selling arms to nations at war and that any arms sale contract must clearly specify the weapons' end user. As a workaround, South Korea has been selling artillery shells to the U.S. and Poland to backfill supplies they send to Ukraine. But the leaked documents suggest, Kim says, that Seoul is concerned about continued U.S. pressure.

KIM J: (Through interpreter) I interpret this to mean that the clause about end users can actually be changed. Then it becomes highly probable that the shells will go to Ukraine.

KUHN: That would be a big policy shift for South Korea. It worries that if it arms Ukraine, Russia could help North Korea build its nuclear arsenal. Opposition Democratic Party policy chief Kim Min-seok warned on Thursday of such a scenario.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM MIN-SEOK: (Through interpreter) President Yoon should clearly declare that South Korea cannot send lethal weapons or combat forces to Ukraine, which could lead to a proxy war between the two Koreas.

KUHN: So far, at least, the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which turns 70 this year, has not come under fire because of the leaks. That's not the case, though, with President Yoon Suk-yeol.

KARL FRIEDHOFF: The opposition party has been trying to paint his foreign policy as being largely subservient to the United States.

KUHN: Karl Friedhoff is an expert on South Korean public opinion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He notes that the U.S. has not yet confirmed whether the leaked documents are real or fake. Seoul, though, has already dismissed them as forgeries. But Fridtjof says that's not what they look like.

FRIEDHOFF: When you look at the documents and the conversations that are supposed to have taken place, it aligns very well with what analysts and experts understood as the South Korean position, what they had already said publicly.

KUHN: South Koreans know the U.S. spies on its allies, including them. What matters is Seoul's reaction. Kwon Chil-seung, an opposition Democratic Party spokesman, told reporters Wednesday that the government must not hush up the controversy just because of the upcoming summit.

KWON CHIL-SEUNG: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Keeping a low profile despite a clear violation of sovereignty doesn't benefit our national interests at all," he said. "Rather, it damages the bargaining power of our diplomacy." If President Yoon decides to change South Korea's rules, allowing it to sell arms to Ukraine, Kim Jong-dae predicts it won't be announced until after the summit to avoid the appearance of striking a deal under U.S. pressure.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. 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.