The recent leak of classified Pentagon documents, showing that the United States has been gathering information on its ally South Korea, will not affect the relationship between the two countries, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told NBC News in an exclusive interview.
The interview came as he and President Joe Biden meet this week to discuss North Korea, China and other pressing challenges.
US and South Korean officials have said much of the information in the documents is inaccurate and may have been doctored, without providing further details.
“I think this issue is no reason to shake the iron trust behind the US-South Korea alliance, because it is based on shared values such as freedom,” Yoon said Monday.
One of the documents, which NBC News has seen, describes internal South Korean government discussions in which top officials raised concerns that a request from Washington for South Korean-made artillery munitions could open the door for delivery. of ammunition to the Ukrainian army.
South Korean officials also saw a need for the government to formulate a clear position on the matter should the White House press the issue. South Korean policy prohibits 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 serious security blunder by the Yoon government.
While acknowledging the discomfort of the US being exposed spying on its allies, Yoon said the relationship between the two countries was based on a high level of trust.
“When you have that confidence, you don’t get discouraged,” he said.
Yoon, a former prosecutor who was elected last year, arrived in Washington on Monday for a six-day state visit as the United States and South Korea commemorate the 70th anniversary of their alliance, dating to the end of the Korean War. He and Biden will hold a summit on Wednesday, and Yoon will address a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.
It is the first US state visit by a South Korean leader in 12 years and the first by an Indo-Pacific leader during the Biden administration, which is focusing more intensely on the strategically important region as it tries to counter growing influence. China.
Yoon’s visit follows the biggest joint US-South Korean military exercises in years, largely aimed at countering North Korea’s nuclear threat. The two countries are also stepping up their security coordination with Japan, holding trilateral defense talks in Washington this month. Biden is also expected to encourage Yoon to further improve ties with Tokyo, with which Seoul has long had a strained relationship.
At a time of heightened international turmoil, Biden and Yoon share a common interest in protecting the liberal international order, said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“President Yoon in particular, unlike previous [South Korean] presidents, he has really emphasized freedom and democracy as a central theme of his foreign policy,» Cha said at a news conference last week.
High on the security agenda is North Korea, which has stepped up its weapons tests amid stalled denuclearization talks.
Earlier this month, North Korea launched its first solid-fueled ICBM, in what analysts say is a significant advance in the country’s efforts to build a nuclear arsenal capable of threatening any part of the continental United States. . US and South Korean officials also say North Korea is preparing for its seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.
North Korea’s belligerence is stoking anxiety among the South Korean public, most of whom say South Korea should have its own nuclear weapons. Washington and Seoul say their goal is to make the Korean peninsula, both North Korea and South Korea, free of nuclear weapons.
Yoon, a conservative, takes a more hawkish approach to North Korea than his predecessor Moon Jae-in and then-President Donald Trump, who both sought diplomatic relations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Although 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 any time soon.
«The important thing is that we have to make North Korea never dare to resort to its nuclear weapons,» he said.
The White House said Monday that Biden and Yoon would make major announcements on cybersecurity cooperation, economic investment and educational exchanges, as well as release a statement on how to improve their efforts to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea.
“We believe that such a statement will send a very clear and demonstrable signal of the credibility of the United States as it relates to its expanded deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea and the Korean people,” National Security Adviser Jake told reporters. Sullivan, using South Korean formal name.
He said the two leaders will also discuss international issues such as climate change and the war in Ukraine.
Since last year’s Russian invasion, South Korea has provided Ukraine with $230 million in humanitarian aid, including non-lethal military assistance, and joined US-led sanctions and export controls against Russia. But there are increasing calls from the West for South Korea, a major producer of artillery munitions, to do more.
After ruling out the possibility of lethal aid last year, Yoon now says that could change in the event of a large-scale civilian attack.
“We are closely monitoring and considering the situation,” said Yoon, who said he was not under pressure from the White House to increase aid.
Ellen Kim, deputy director of the Korea Chair at CSIS, said Yoon’s apparent turnaround showed that the war in Ukraine has direct implications for the Korean peninsula.
«Given the increased cooperation between Russia and North Korea, it is becoming increasingly difficult for South Korea to avoid being trapped in Ukraine,» he told the news conference.
On Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory, Yoon reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, saying South Korea opposes any attempt to change the status quo by force, a option that China has not ruled out. outside.
China said on Sunday it had lodged a complaint over comments Yoon made in an interview with Reuters in which he said Taiwan, like North Korea, was a «global problem.» In a statement, China’s foreign ministry called Yoon’s comments «totally unacceptable» and said Taiwan was China’s internal affair and not comparable to North Korea.
Yoon and his government are also trying to draw more attention to the human rights situation in North Korea, which is battling dire food shortages as Kim prioritizes his weapons programs.