Are Korean Fighters in Ukraine Good for Korea?

Are Korean Fighters in Ukraine Good for Korea?

Former South Korean navy officer and YouTuber Rhee Keun says he is in Ukraine to fight and bring glory to Korea. The government says it will punish him.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

The news over the weekend that a few South Koreans have become fighters for Ukraine against Russia generated quite a chatter. Former navy lieutenant and Influencer Rhee Keun, also known as Ken Rhee, has been posting pictures since four days ago hinting that he and "his team" were bound for Ukraine and are in fact now on the ground.

Rhee Keun's Instagram post Tuesday from Ukraine says, "The world helped Korea during the Korean War. [...] Now we will help Ukraine."

There has been much good will toward Ukraine in Western countries, and South Korea, too, has shown outrage at the Russian invasion. But some of its people are asking whether it's good for the nation that citizens like Rhee are heading to war.

The background: the Ukrainian military is said to be vastly outnumbered by its better equipped Russian counterpart. On Feb. 27 Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on foreign citizens for help, "Anyone who wants to join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals." The appeal seems to be working, with foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba reportedly saying on Sunday that 20,000 people from 52 countries stepped up.

Ukraine has a sign-up website for foreign fighters, and it lists the embassy in Seoul as a contact point, so it was conceivable that some South Korean citizens might volunteer.

That's not what the South Korean government wants. On Feb. 13 Seoul added Ukraine to its list of countries banned for South Korean travelers, "as a preventative measure in preparation for sudden deterioration of the situation on the ground". The list also contains Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and a small corner of the Philippines.

The foreign ministry map indicating (in black) the banned travel destinations for South Korean citizens.

That means it's illegal for Rhee to go to Ukraine. After media reported that "South Korean citizens arbitrarily entered Ukraine for the purpose of joining the Ukrainian government's foreign volunteer troops", the foreign ministry announced on Tuesday that "entering Ukraine will be subject to criminal prosecution and limits on passport possession" and said it was already "taking measures toward Rhee's passport."

Even before the ministry issued its official statement, Rhee was unrepentant. "When you try to do something meaningful, life's losers will envy and denounce and try to bring you down." He insisted that he had "considered leaving by following official protocol, but encountered friction from the government's strong opposition," so he left in secrecy.

The ensuing public debate has centered on which side is right.

There's been a surprising outpouring of support for Ukraine from South Korea. Surprising, I say, because South Korea generally isn't too focused on developments beyond East Asia and the US.

Even as a number of ruling Minjoo Party figures blamed the war on Ukraine and its leader, president Moon Jae-in acted to restrict some exports to Russia and the Russian vassal state Belarus (in alignment with the US, South Korea's military ally). On Monday the finance ministry announced an end to transactions with the Russian central bank and two Russian sovereign wealth funds, as well as exclusion of seven EU-designated Russian banks from the international money transfer system SWIFT. Major landmarks around the country have been bathed in the Ukrainian flag colors of blue and yellow.

Numerous tales of donations to Ukraine have surfaced, with the Ukrainian embassy in Seoul reporting some 127,000 USD pouring into its fundraising account on the day of opening. Actress Lee Young-ae of the drama Jewel in the Palace fame is among the donors.

Potential military involvement in the conflict, however, has been seen as a big no-no. "The South Korean government publicized punishing former Lieutenant Rhee out of concern that Russia might interpret [Rhee's act] as a type of military deployment," pontificated domestic news agency NEWSIS.

"If South Korea were to appear as though permitting individuals' participation as foreign fighters [for Ukraine], this could cause Russia's misunderstanding. [...] It may be read as an intention toward [Korea's] independent involvement in the war."

There is no official figure, but Rhee and his team might not be alone in heading to the world's latest conflict zone. On Monday, state-funded Yonhap News Agency quoted a Ukrainian embassy official in Seoul as saying that "an estimated 100 [South Koreans] have so far volunteered to be foreign fighters." The embassy's Facebook post containing Zelenskyy's request for help has some who identify as Korean asking how they could "go to Ukraine and defend Ukrainian territory".

While many praised Rhee's decision as "courageous" and prayed for his safe return, others, however, have been critical, saying, "The government is probably opposing it because Korean citizens may come to harm or cause harm to other Koreans and the country itself." One compared the situation to the "Saemmul Church incident" and argued, "the state has reasons for restricting travel or banning departure overseas: it's to protect its citizens."

The Saemmul Church, in Seoul's southern suburb of Bundang, gained notoriety in 2007 after its group of young missionaries were found to have gone to Afghanistan, travel to which the government at the time advised against. The Taliban kidnapped all 23, killing two before releasing the rest. It was reported by international press, and denied by the South Korean government, that Seoul paid a ransom between two million USD and 20 million GBP for the survivors' freedom.

The case cast a harsh light on Korean Protestant churches, blamed for tarnishing the country's reputation and costing taxpayer money. On returning to South Korea, the group bowed deep and their representative apologized for "becoming a burden to fellow citizens and the government".

Qatari media outlet Al Jazeera aired footage of the South Korean hostages in Taliban custody.

The same logic—that South Koreans shouldn't go abroad and cause inconvenience or worse to their country—still informs how other incidents are narrated and understood by the public. In late 2018 a 25-year-old university student went on a tour of Grand Canyon and fell, ending up in a coma. His family asked for donations to cover the steep costs of treatment and evacuation to South Korea, including in a petition to the presidential office.

That, though, caused a backlash; many condemned the family for asking the government to help with an accident that had happened during private leisure travel, and some even snooped around the victim's sister's instagram account for proof that they were affluent and needed no financial support.

Rhee's deployment, too, has attracted some words of caution: "I applaud him for living by his conviction, but he himself must know that [the decision] also comes with responsibility."

There is also skepticism about his intention. Rhee built his personal brand as a tough Korean military guy with combat experience, gaining fame on the 2020 reality show Fake Men (Gajja sanai 가짜사나이). His YouTube channel ROKSEAL has 780,000 subscribers, and he starred in commercials for multiple companies including the big fast-food franchise Lotteria.

Rhee in Lotteria's commercials for its "military burger"

Then his career as a YouTuber and influencer suffered a major blow in late 2020: it emerged that he had been convicted of sexually molesting a woman and had refused to pay back a debt, and his reputation never quite recovered (he has insisted that the sex crime verdict relied only on the testimony of the victim as evidence and was unjust).

That history informs why some see his sudden presence in Ukraine as a publicity stunt designed to renew his profile. He is breaking the law and may be risking his life, but as a result has gained some twenty thousand new followers on YouTube in the past few days.

"As the Republic of Korea's first volunteer military force, we will burnish our country's reputation as its representatives," he signed off on his Instagram post announcing the departure for Ukraine.

That rationalization—that he's doing it for the nation (and the world) and not himself—has clearly served him well so far.

But should Rhee and his cohort end up in trouble on Ukrainian soil, there will be no sympathy.

Cover: the Ukrainian government site "Fight for Ukraine" asks foreigners to join the war against Russia.

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