The recent leak of classified US intelligence documents shocked the military and diplomatic establishment in Washington. On April 13, the FBI arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, who leaked the documents in a Discord chat room. Investigations are continuing into how a low-ranking national guardsman had access to the documents and how accessible such information should be moving forward.
The leaked documents showed that the US was spying on many countries, including close allies such as Britain, Canada, Israel and South Korea. The news stirred the most controversy in South Korea, as the documents suggested the US had picked up communication signals in the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan, central Seoul, which was thought to be impenetrable. Most South Koreans took the spying as a sign of distrust and an offense against national sovereignty. Later, the government stated that the information in some of the leaks was false and that security could not have been breached. President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is scheduled to hold a summit with President Joe Biden on Thursday, stated that the incident would not weaken the alliance with the US.
The negative reaction of the South Korea public is understandable, but reality is that allies spy on each other routinely because information is valuable. In a recent Associated Press article, Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership, stated that “it’s also no secret that allies spy on each other, as well as their adversaries.”
The fullness of time will provide more detail on the reasons for the leak and the accuracy of the information. For now, the most interesting information in the documents is the degree of US involvement in supporting Ukraine in countering Russia’s invasion. It echoes back to the Cold War when the US military and diplomatic establishment focused intently on containing the Soviet Union. This policy led the US to fight several wars directly, including the Korean War, as well as proxy wars through military aid and assistance. The Soviet Union, of course, did the same thing.
As in the first Cold War, the US is trying to pressure nations to take sides and support Ukraine. President Biden developed his world view at the peak of the Cold War. He wants to lead a large, united group of allies in support of Ukraine, but without triggering a wider war between NATO and Russia.
This explains why the leaked US documents focused on South Korea’s stance on supplying weapons to Ukraine. South Korea, which is a major arms producer, has a policy of not selling weapons to nations at war. In response to US pressure, the documents raised the idea that South Korea could sell weapons to Poland, which could then get them to Ukraine quickly. Such a move would deepen the country’s involvement in the war, which could raise tensions with Russia and China, which is moving closer to Russia.
The leaked documents also confirmed that the US views China as its most powerful long-term competitor. Unlike Russia, however, the US has yet to launch a full-scale Cold War against China. Both nations have sharpened their criticisms of each other, and the relationship has deteriorated greatly, but economic interdependency puts a floor under them — for now. Biden wants to get reelected and he understands the degree to which the US economy is dependent on China. After years of harsh COVID-19 restrictions and growing demographic challenges, China has taken a renewed interest in economic growth and thus wants to limit the downward spiral.
What does the US stance mean on Russia and China mean for South Korea? The US endgame in Ukraine is to prevent Russia from conquering without a NATO-Russian confrontation. This means that it will continue to pressure allies, including South Korea, to step up their involvement as needed. It will also work to expand the list of allies by giving neutral countries incentives to pull away from Russia.
With China, by contrast, the US has no endgame because economic interdependency makes it difficult to define what an endgame would look like. Instead, the US will aim to “decouple” economically from China over the long term to prevent severe economic damage from a hot Cold War. For South Korea, which had already been working to reduce its dependence on China, this will mean more opportunities as developing countries compete more actively for post-China business.
The leaked documents are embarrassing for sure, but they offer South Korea valuable insight into the worldview of its closest ally.