A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine said it would have been a “crime” not to use his skills to help.
Ken Rhee, a former special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian embassy in Seoul the moment Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.
To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from traveling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.
However, the celebrity former soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, said he has no regrets.
“You’re walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying ‘no swimming,’ but you see someone drowning. It’s a crime not to help. That’s how I see it,” he said.
Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the US. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a “patriot,” he said — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.
He served for seven years, undergoing US and South Korean SEAL training, and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defense consultancy.
“I have the skill set. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help,” he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea’s passport law to leave as the equivalent of a “traffic violation”.
However, the reaction in South Korea — where Rhee shot to fame as a trainer in the popular YouTube series Fake Men — was swift and unforgiving.
“It was instant. People in Korea, they just criticized me about breaking the law,” Rhee said.
His critics say the 38-year-old’s decision was criminally irresponsible, and point to his posting of war footage on YouTube and Instagram as evidence of showboating.
Rhee said he tries not to let the furore get to him.
“I think it’s pretty obvious who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” he said of Russia and Ukraine.
On his first day on the front line in Irpin — which he described as “the Wild West” — he said he witnessed Russian war crimes.
“I saw a civilian get shot. He was driving ... and they shot him through the windshield and he died in front of us,” he said.
“It was like: There’s my proof. There’s definitely war crimes going on. It reminded me and my teammates what we were doing and why we were there,” Rhee said.
Due to his training, Rhee was told to set up his own team, so he recruited other volunteers with combat experience for a multinational special operations group.
Russia said earlier this month that 13 South Koreans had traveled to Ukraine — including four who were killed. Seoul said it was trying to verify the claims.
Although Rhee did not know the fate of all his teammates, he said “a lot of my friends have died.”
“I don’t want my friends’ sacrifices to be forgotten,” he said, adding that he plans to write a book — and maybe a screenplay — about his team’s experiences.
However, he first needs to deal with the official repercussions of his trip. He is quietly optimistic that South Korea’s new conservative administration will not put him in jail.
Rhee is not allowed to leave the country until his case is resolved, and is receiving treatment for his injuries, but he hopes one day to fight alongside his teammates again, for a cause they believe in.
The joke as people left the front line was: “See you in Taiwan,” he said, referring darkly to the risk that Beijing will follow Moscow’s lead and invade the democracy.
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