Ken Rhee, a former South Korean navy seal and now a soldier of the International Legion fighting for Ukraine, spoke to NV about his combat experience, impressions of the Ukrainian military strategy and the local climate.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, tens of thousands of volunteers from many countries have joined the Ukrainian military on the battlefield – well-trained, experienced and equipped fighters of the world's strongest armies. Most of them joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense under the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which was created in late February by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky specially for foreign citizens.
Rhee, 38, a former navy seal and lieutenant of the Navy special unit of the Republic of Korea, who arrived in Ukraine in early March, is one of such fighters. After eight years of military service, Rhee earned a solid resume: he held several government positions in his homeland, worked in the U.S. and UN Departments, took part in a popular show about the military and runs a YouTube channel with 800,000 subscribers.
Prior to arriving in Ukraine, Rhee ran a company, which provided advisory services to the military and police, as well as helping the entertainment industry make military films. Another area of his business is the rescue of victims of global catastrophes, one of which, according to the Korean volunteer, is taking place in Ukraine now.
NV: Why are you here, what was your motivation to fight for Ukraine?
Rhee: Everyone has a reason to come to Ukraine. For me, this is absolutely a matter of morality. I saw on TV what was happening here, I couldn't believe that Russia could just invade a sovereign state. In my head, I knew who were the bad guys and who were the good guys.
At first, President Zelensky said that only European neighboring countries were needed. So I thought I wouldn't be able to come from Korea. But when he explained that it could be volunteers from all over the world, I immediately packed my bags.
It's like walking down the street and seeing two guys raping a woman. Will you just watch? Especially if you are trained to do something about it, if you have the experience to help. For me, doing nothing is a crime in itself. That's why I'm here.
As a former special forces operator, I have skills that can really help the military here. If I just sit idle, doing nothing and watching CNN, it will be wrong.
NV: What does your family think about the decision to fight so far from home and for another country?
Rhee: My mother is always worried, she's hysterical now, she doesn't like that I'm here. I'm trying to calm her down, I'm telling my relatives that someone should go to Ukraine and help. And they say: "Why you? Someone else can do it!" However, it's important for me to be here, even if my family doesn't agree with me, to help locals and the military.
NV: What did you know about Ukraine before coming here?
Rhee: I'm here for the first time and, despite the fact that I came to the war, I'm very glad to be here. Before that I knew a little about Ukraine, because I studied international political science in college. This is one of the countries I was really interested in. I know that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, had a complicated history with Russia and nuclear weapons, which it renounced in exchange for peace and security. Which, obviously, didn't happen.
Once I was in Russia, in Vladivostok. It's not far from Korea, and many Koreans go there for sightseeing and tourist trips. So when I came to Ukraine, I noticed that it all reminded me of the history of South and North Korea. For a foreigner, at first glance, people seem to have much in common, such as similar language and appearance. But these are different countries that have always been at war with each other.
NV: What was your combat experience, and have you already fought here in Ukraine?
Rhee: As part of the Korean navy seals, we rescued hostages in Somalia: there were many counter-terrorist operations there in 2009-2011, and I gained a lot of combat experience there. After that, I was in Iraq during quite difficult periods, just as I came to Ukraine – in the first week of the war, when Kyiv was under threat of enemy invasion.
Then we had successful missions in Irpin. But there were also not very successful when two of my comrades were wounded. We fought against Russian tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers in the central park of Irpin, which we were trying to liberate. And I'm happy to be part of two groups of liberators who eventually expelled the Russians.
After Irpin, we went to the south of Ukraine. Now my team is still on a mission there, but I was wounded during the last military operation and have to spend a few days in a military hospital under examination.
NV: What did you like most about Ukraine and what was the hardest thing about staying here?
Rhee: I was very impressed by how kind and sensitive the Ukrainian people were to foreigners, even during the war no one was angry or annoyed. This is a unique situation: there is a cult of foreign fighters in Ukraine, and everyone is ready to help them.
As for the difficulties: when I arrived in Ukraine in early March, it was really very cold. It was colder than in Korea, so it was difficult to fight. We should always think about clothes, because we go on a four-five-day mission and sleep in places without electricity. One of my comrades even had hypothermia, and we had to evacuate him.
The second is nutrition. It's not always good at the forefront: we eat chicken porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But every time we come to Kyiv to replenish our stocks, I love to taste local cuisine: the restaurants are great here, the traditional borsch is very good. It looks like tomato soup, but I like it.
NV: What is your relationship with Ukrainians and other foreign legionnaires?
Rhee: I worked with Ukrainian special forces on the battlefield, and they are exceptional professionals, very well-trained fighters. But it was also quite difficult because of the great cultural and mental differences. I trained with the Korean and U.S. military, where we always spent a lot of energy on planning.
I met Georgians, but I think they're also very militant. Sometimes they don't have good equipment, training or strategy, they don't pay special attention to weapons or equipment. However, they're fighting like real fearless warriors.
But there are few Koreans here: I think only me and maybe a few other guys. There have been about 10 of us since the beginning of the war. Many Ukrainians are still surprised to see an Asian, because it's a very rare phenomenon.
NV: How do you see the end of this war and what are your personal plans for the future?
Rhee: If Ukraine does not win the war, any neighboring country that opposes Russia or tries to join NATO will be under threat. Russia will continue to attack, and it will never end. Therefore, I believe that this war is, in a sense, a world war.
I think it will either take a long time or Putin will die of disease or cancer. He's not one of those guys who gives up easily. And Ukraine is definitely not going to surrender. That's why the war will last for some time.
What does this mean for me? It's obvious that one day I'll have to go back home to reboot myself, get better equipment, better prepare and come back here again. To keep doing what I do until Ukraine wins.
The problem is that my stay in Ukraine is considered illegal at home. Each country has different laws, and the Korean ones are very strange.
Therefore, I think that when I return, they will try to arrest me at the airport only for participating in this war. I'm planning to receive several letters from the Ukrainian government, and I hope they will help me in court. I already have a lawyer. But even at the risk of being imprisoned, I still believe that I made the right decision. I'm happy to be here, change the situation and work with Ukrainians.