South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has stated in an exclusive interview with NBC News that the recent leak of classified Defense Department documents revealing that the United States has been gathering intelligence on South Korea, will not affect the relationship between the two countries. Yoon asserted that the alliance between South Korea and the US is based on shared values like freedom, and is not affected by the current situation. US and South Korean officials have said that much of the information in the documents is inaccurate and may have been altered. Yoon stated that the relationship between the two countries is built on a high level of trust, which is not shaken easily.
Yoon arrived in Washington for a six-day state visit, coinciding with a meeting with President Joe Biden to discuss North Korea, China and other challenges. At the top of the security agenda is North Korea, which has stepped up its weapons testing amid stalled denuclearization talks. Biden and Yoon share a common interest in protecting the liberal international order. Biden is also expected to encourage Yoon to continue improving ties with Japan, with which Seoul has long had a fraught relationship. The White House said Monday that Biden and Yoon would be making major announcements on cybersecurity cooperation, economic investments and educational exchanges, as well as releasing a statement on enhancing their efforts to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea. The two leaders would also discuss international issues such as climate change and the war in Ukraine.
One of the documents leaked describes internal South Korean government discussions in which senior officials expressed concern that a request from Washington for South Korean-made artillery ammunition could open the door to the munitions being handed over to Ukraine’s military. The South Korean officials also saw the need for the government to formulate a clear position on the matter in case the White House pressed the issue. South Korea’s policy bars it from providing lethal aid to Ukraine. Opposition lawmakers in South Korea criticized the alleged US surveillance as a violation of national sovereignty and a major security lapse by the Yoon government.
Yoon, a conservative, takes a more hard-line approach to North Korea than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, and then-President Donald Trump, both of whom tried to engage in diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Though he has offered North Korea economic incentives in exchange for concrete steps toward denuclearization, Yoon said it was “unrealistic” to expect a deal with the North anytime soon. Yoon also stated that South Korea finds itself increasingly difficult to avoid entrapment in Ukraine given the increased cooperation between Russia and North Korea.