If there is one ally the US can be excused for spying on, it is the Republic of Korea. This is not because the two countries do not have a close relationship. Nor is it because South Korea is any more or less reliable a partner than anybody else. It is because the stakes are simply too high not to.
South Korea is still in a state of war with a nuclear-armed North Korea, and the US is publicly committed to its defence. Washington needs to know if Seoul is considering a move that could spark a nuclear arms race in north-east Asia, or fatally undermine international pressure on Pyongyang, or — in the most extreme circumstances — drag the US into a nuclear conflict.
The principle works both ways. According to a former senior western intelligence official, the South Korean intelligence agency is a “wartime service”, closer in culture to the Israeli secret services than those of their western counterparts. It cannot be said for certain that the South Koreans routinely spy on western diplomats in Seoul, but many diplomats take precautions they would not take in most other friendly countries.
It should not, therefore, be a cause of surprise or even particularly of embarrassment that the US appears to have been caught monitoring the communications of South Korean officials as they agonised over whether to supply to Washington ammunition that was likely to end up in Ukrainian hands. Far more interesting is the substance of their internal deliberations, and what it tells us about South Korea’s faltering emergence as a serious international player.
Western countries see South Korea as an indispensable partner. This is a broadly pro-west country in Asia with formidable capabilities in critical technologies ranging from semiconductors and batteries to artificial intelligence. Crucially, its remarkable economic and political transformation has given it the moral authority to extol the virtues of liberal democracy without an accompanying taint of colonialism.
And yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded South Korea’s western allies that the country remains frustratingly timid on the international stage.
On paper, Seoul has signed up to many of the US and EU-led sanctions on Russia since the invasion. But behind the scenes, in most cases South Korean officials were highly reluctant to do so.
South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol, who has outlined a vision for South Korea to emerge as a “global pivotal state”, revelled in his invitation to the most recent Nato summit in Madrid last year.
But despite sitting on a pile of ammunition that Kyiv desperately needs, his administration still refuses to assist the Ukrainians in a meaningful way — even after Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg came to Seoul earlier this year and practically begged it to do so.
Of particular irritation to western officials is Seoul’s obsession with securing support for its bid to hold the 2030 World Expo in the southern port city of Busan. To prioritise this at a time when its allies are struggling with the political and economic aftershocks of war in Europe has come across as myopic and selfish.
Seoul does have legitimate concerns that Russia could respond to a shift in South Korean policy on Ukraine by ramping up support for Pyongyang. One might also argue that Kyiv’s fate is not really any of South Korea’s business. As one senior Korean official attempted to explain to me last year, Ukraine is “very far away”.
But this is a curious argument given South Korea’s own historical experience. Visit the UN Korean war cemetery in Busan and alongside the graves of American, British, French and Canadian soldiers you will see the graves of soldiers from countries such as Colombia and Ethiopia, who also died in Korea for the fledgling UN order.
This is the highly sensitive subtext of the present tensions surrounding South Korea’s reluctance to contribute more to the Ukrainian cause. It is Koreans who sacrificed by far the most to achieve their present success. But the country and its prosperity are also products of the present international system, and the willingness of people from “very far away” to fight and to die for it.