South Korean ex-SEAL doesn’t regret Ukraine

Published on:

Seoul (AFP) – A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a “crime” not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, a former special warfare officer, registered at the Ukrainian embassy in Seoul when President Volodymyr Zelensky called for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv in 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 ops patrol there down, was greeted at the airport by 15 police on his return.

But the famous ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 subscribers and has documented much of his experience in Ukraine on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

“You’re walking on the beach and you see a sign at the water’s edge saying ‘no swimming’ – but you see someone drowning. It’s a crime not to help. That’s how I see,” he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father – a “patriot”, he says – convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing US and Korean SEAL training and several stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to start a defense consulting firm.

“I have the skills. I have the experience. I’ve been in two different wars, and by going to Ukraine I knew I could help,” he said, adding that he considered the violation of South Korean passport law as the equivalent of “trafficking”. breach”.

Backlash in Korea

But the reaction in South Korea – where Rhee rose to fame as a trainer in the popular YouTube series “Fake Men” – was swift and ruthless.

Former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber Ken Rhee (R) poses for a photo with a fan on a street in Seoul Jung Yeon-jeAFP

“It was instantaneous. People in Korea, they just criticized me for breaking the law,” Rhee said.

Critics say the 38-year-old’s decision was criminally irresponsible and point to his posting of war footage on his YouTube and Instagram accounts as evidence of showboating.

Rhee says he tries not to let the fury 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 describes as “the Wild West” and “chaos” – he says 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: this is my evidence. There are definitely war crimes. It reminded me and my teammates of what we were doing and why we were there,” he said.

Due to his military training, Rhee was ordered to create his own team. He therefore recruited other volunteers with combat experience and set up a multinational special operations group.

“I was eating Canadian MREs. My gun was from the Czech Republic. I have a Javelin missile from the United States. I have a rocket that is from Germany…but nothing is Korean,” he said. -he says.

He tried to take his Korean-made night vision goggles, but couldn’t get government export permission. Seoul provided non-lethal aid to Kyiv, but Rhee said they could do more.

“Korea has state-of-the-art equipment…they are very good at making weapons,” he said.

“See you in Taiwan”

Russia said this week that 13 South Koreans had traveled to Ukraine, four of whom were killed. Seoul said it was trying to verify the claims.

Although Rhee does not know the fate of all of his teammates, he said “a lot of my friends are dead.”

“I don’t want my friends’ sacrifices to be forgotten,” he said, adding that he plans to write a book – and possibly a screenplay – about his team’s experiences.

But first, he must 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 receives treatment for his injuries. But he hopes to one day fight alongside his teammates again, for a cause they believe in.

The joke as people left the frontline was: “See you in Taiwan,” he said, gloomily referring to the risk that Beijing would follow Moscow’s lead and invade a neighboring democracy.