By Gawon Bae, Yoonjung Seo, Larry Register and Helen Regan, CNN
South Korea said on Tuesday that information contained in the leaked classified Pentagon documents that appeared to be based on sensitive conversations between top South Korean security officials is “fabricated,” without providing further details.
The documents have become a domestic issue in South Korea amid accusations they expose the extent of United States eavesdropping on key regional allies.
The fallout comes as South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is scheduled to make an official state visit to the US on April 26 where he will be hosted by US President Joe Biden. The two countries will celebrate the 70th anniversary of their joint security alliance during the visit.
One document released in the leak suggests South Korean officials were concerned ammunition sold to the US could be diverted to Ukraine, potentially violating the country’s policy of not supplying lethal aid to countries engaged in conflict.
Another document cites information relating to South Korea as coming from a “signals intelligence report,” or intelligence gathered through the interception of communication signals.
In a statement, the office of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said allegations the US had penetrated the country’s official communication channels were “an absurd false suspicion.”
The statement said South Korean defense chief Lee Jong-sup held phone talks with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin Tuesday morning, during which they agreed that “a considerable amount of the documents were fabricated.”
The statement did not specify whether the two sides believe that only the parts about South Korea are fabricated, or the documents in general.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the call took place at the request of Austin. During the call, the US Secretary of Defense explained recent media coverage of the leak and said the US would closely communicate with South Korea on this issue, according to the statement.
CNN has reached out to the US Department of Defense for comment, and for a readout of the call. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the call happened but would not offer any additional details, saying only that a US readout would be released soon.
CNN has reviewed 53 leaked documents, all of which appear to have been produced between mid-February and early March.
Many of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, had markings indicating that they had been produced by the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, and appear to be briefing documents.
Asked about the validity of the documents, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters at a White House press briefing Monday afternoon, “we know that some of them have been doctored,” but that he didn’t want to “speak to the validity of all the documents.”
“We’re still working through the validity of all the documents that we know are out there,” Kirby said.
Pressed on if the US believes that some of the documents are valid, Kirby said the administration “cannot speak to the veracity and the validity of any of those documents at this point.”
Kirby added later there was, “no excuse for these kinds of documents to be in the public domain. They don’t deserve to be in the public domain. They deserve to be protected. So, we’re going to get to the bottom of this,” but he said, “we need to be careful speculating right now.”
‘Absurd false suspicion’
The revelations have led South Korean opposition lawmakers to suggest the US had wiretapped the South Korean presidential office, which had moved from the Blue House to the Yongsan Presidential Office in Seoul last May.
The claims of wiretapping were denied by the South Korean presidential office.
“We clearly state that the suspicion of wiretapping the Yongsan Presidential Office is an absurd false suspicion,” the statement said.
“Unlike the Blue House where the president’s office, secretary’s office and security office were scattered, currently we are maintaining ‘iron security’ through an integrated security system and dedicated personnel,” the statement added.
South Korea is a major arms exporter and President Yoon announced last year plans to become one of the world’s top four weapons suppliers.
In July, the country signed a deal to supply Poland with almost 1,000 K2 tanks, more than 600 pieces of artillery and dozens of fighter jets. And in November, a US defense official told CNN that Washington intends to buy 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition from South Korean arms manufacturers to provide to Ukraine.
On Monday, the presidential office said South Korea’s policy of not supplying lethal aid to countries at war remains unchanged.
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