The Korea Herald


Five Eyes invitation may come with costs

South Korea will have greater access to classified intelligence from the US but Chinese backlash seems inevitable

By Lee Ji-yoon

Published : Sept. 6, 2021 - 16:40

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South Korea has received a fresh invitation from the world’s most exclusive intelligence-sharing alliance, the so-called Five Eyes, but experts warn there is no such thing as a free lunch in diplomacy.

Last week, the US House of Representatives submitted a draft bill to the National Defense Authorization for the 2022 fiscal year, asking the US administration to consider expanding the Five Eyes program that currently consists of five English-speaking democracies: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Along with Korea, three other nations, Japan, India and Germany, were proposed as possible new members.

“The Five Eyes is an extremely exclusive intelligence alliance. The joining of three Asian nations would mean the alliance’s bigger presence in the Indo-Pacific region where the US is uniting allies to counter China’s growing power,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

“For Korea, it is absolutely an opportunity to have access to high-quality intelligence. But that would come with sizeable costs, especially in its relations with China.” 

Flags of Five Eyes members (123rf) Flags of Five Eyes members (123rf)
The US-led Five Eyes started in 1946 during the Cold War as a mechanism for monitoring the Soviet Union and sharing classified intelligence. Since then, it has evolved into a more extensive alliance that transcends security and business spheres, with a majority of intelligence coming from Washington.

Korea and the US have also long shared classified intelligence but mostly on North Korea’s military and nuclear activities. Under the Five Eyes program, Korea is expected to have greater access to a much wider scope of intelligence on international affairs.

The issue is that now the unstated priority of the decades-old alliance is countering China’s influence and Korea is likely to face renewed pressure to choose between its biggest ally, the US, and its biggest trading partner, China.

In May 2020, the Five Eyes alliance agreed to expand its role in presenting a unified voice on human rights and democracy as well, voicing concerns on issues like China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea and suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. China has vehemently protested against the allegations.

Even the current arrangement has struggled with members’ varying interests depending on their ties with the Chinese economy. At the time, New Zealand opted out of countering China, while Australia was slapped with a series of trade sanctions from China.

“It remains to be seen whether Korea will join the Five Eyes considering multiple factors like consensus among member nations and the willingness of the Korean government,” Park said.

“What’s clear is the Biden administration’s foreign policy is pivoting to the Indo-Pacific following its exit from Afghanistan. More invitations that require Korea’s tough decisions are likely to come in the future.”

The US draft bill will be reviewed at House and Senate subcommittees to be included in the final bill, with the deadline set for May 22 next year. The US government will make its final decision after consultations with current and future member nations.

The Korean government has not yet expressed its official stance on the issue, citing the still nascent phase of discussions in the US.

Early this year, there was speculation that Korea was mulling its entry into the Quad, an informal regional grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia that discusses economic and security partnership and aims to bolster their ties against a more assertive China.

In the summit talks with President Joe Biden in May, President Moon Jae-in said the nation was willing to join any “open and inclusive” regional alliances, including the Quad, if necessary.