06.06.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korean Mercenaries in Ukraine: the “Return of the Navy Seal”


On the morning of May 27, former ROK Navy special forces captain Lee Geun, who had taken part in hostilities on the Ukrainian side as part of a foreign volunteer battalion, returned to Seoul on a flight from Warsaw. The ROK police intend to investigate him for violating the authorities’ ban on travelling to Ukraine, which could result in a prison sentence of up to 1 year or a fine of up to 10 million won and the revocation of his passport, and he is currently under COVID quarantine.

The adventures of this man, who unwittingly sparked rumors that “South Korean special forces are fighting in Ukraine,” have been followed by the author since these rumors emerged, and since the Lee’s saga is at least at an intermediate point, it is time to summarize some of the results.

Former military instructor for the ROK Navy’s submarine subversive group, he was born in South Korea but grew up and received an education in the US, which is why he often refers to himself as “Ken Rhee.” He spent 8 years in the army special forces (as a frogman), after which he spent two years with the US Navy SEALs as part of a personnel exchange program. The BBC reports that he participated in a UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia between 2009 and 2011. After retiring from the army, Lee Geun became a popular military blogger, and finally rose to fame after portraying a training instructor in the YouTube show Fake Men. He has since appeared in various entertainment shows on major TV channels and by the time he and his entourage arrived in Ukraine on March 7, his YouTube channel Rockseal had almost 800,000 subscribers.

His previous social media post concluded with news of March 30 – at the time, Lee wrote on Instagram that “his special combat team is conducting confidential direct offensive operations”. “After I arrived at the International Legion and signed my contract, I was tasked with creating a special team of multinational combat veterans… My team was then given assignments that are confidential… We have since yesterday been redeployed and are conducting direct offensive operations,” the YouTuber said, adding that he could not disclose further details for security reasons.

But he noted that he “has the full backing of my superiors, the Armed Forces, and the Ukrainian people. I know that all are very grateful for the work that the international legionnaires are doing here” and that this post was authorized by the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine.

In response to a text message from the Yonhap news agency asking to verify Rhee’s statement, Damien Magrou, a spokesperson for the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, confirmed that the post was discussed with the legion before being uploaded.

On March 28, during an interview with the Yonhap news agency, Damien Magrou, a representative of the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine (Ukraine established the foreign legion on February 27, a few days after the start of the special military operation, with over 20,000 men from 52 countries joining the brigade-level unit) confirmed that several volunteer soldiers from South Korea had been sent to Ukrainian frontline units fighting against Russia.

On April 22, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said it was verifying the veracity of intelligence reports that at least one ROK national who had taken part in the war in Ukraine as a volunteer had died. Lee Geun, by the way, quickly responded and reported that he was alive. On April 29, Lee Geun announced on his YouTube channel a fundraiser to buy the necessary gear, equipment and supplies. According to him, the combat situation is deteriorating day by day.

On May 13, Lee Geun announced via YouTube that he is fighting on the frontline, refuting both rumors of his death and speculation that he is fighting his war in the comfort of a hotel near the Polish border, where he shoots emotional photos and videos. On May 15, ROKSEAL’s YouTube channel reported that Lee Geun “was injured during a special reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines” and was transferred to a military hospital.

On May 16, 2022, Lee told a local weekly magazine, Novoye Vremya, that he would probably be arrested on his return home, but had no regrets about what he said was “an inevitable action to support people suffering from an unjust invasion.” According to him, his family and many people in South Korea were against his involvement in the war. Lee confirmed that he is being treated in a military hospital after recently being wounded during combat operations in the town of Irpen near Kiev.

On May 19, the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine announced that Lee Geun was returning to his homeland to undergo rehabilitation, and now the “Navy Seal” has finally returned. Appearing before journalists shortly after his arrival, Lee said he had ruptured cruciate ligaments in both knees, which required surgery. This seemed to be true, as the blogger walked with a slight limp and his companion helped him from time to time.

In addition, Lee noted that he had gone to Ukraine not to fight but to defend people, but that he was ready to cooperate with the police investigation and face any punishment. And “although he’s back for rehabilitation and treatment, he can’t wait to get back [to the frontline].”

The military blogger spoke briefly about his experiences in the war, including how a Ukrainian civilian was shot dead during his first assignment.

However, it struck the author’s eye that when referring to war crimes, Lee did not mention who committed them, even though usually the ROK media stigmatizes the Russian side. Given that he and his comrades were sent to fight not just the “Russian invasion” but “world communism,” if these war crimes had been committed by the Russian side, Lee would most likely have mentioned it at least for propaganda purposes and to thus “cushion the blow” in the event of a criminal offence: we are fighting an evil that commits such atrocities!

In this context, the author concedes that these were crimes committed by the Ukrainian side, and that this may have been the reason for Lee to leave the country, and possibly his knee was injured when he tried to protest war crimes or prevent them from happenning.

But so far it is no more than a hypothesis.

So what now? The timing of the investigation will depend on his health and the progress of his treatment, plus this will be the first precedent of a case of this nature, especially as the status of Ukraine’s foreign legion is unclear.

Are there any South Korean soldiers still in Ukraine? According to Lee Geun, there were about 10 volunteers on the battlefield early in the war, but now there are only a few left. According to the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly Committee on International Affairs and National Unification, nine South Koreans participated as mercenaries in the fighting in Ukraine. Three have already returned home. Two are listed as missing in action. The ROK Foreign Ministry believes that four South Korean nationals are fighting on the Ukrainian side + an unspecified number “never made it to Ukraine.” So, on April 25, 2022, the Marine soldier mentioned by the author earlier was finally taken into custody when he landed in Poland on March 21 without authorization to enter Ukraine, but was refused entry. The Korean military and diplomats have since tried to persuade him to return, as they could not simply force him to fly home outside South Korea’s jurisdiction.

On May 5, 2022, one of the survivors (other than the fact that he is 30 years old, no other details are known) posted a petition on the website of the ROK presidential administration complaining of harassment and pressure from the Foreign Ministry, which threatens him and other mercenaries with revocation of their passports and also pressures relatives to convince and influence them.  This is all very stressful for the author of the petition, as “members of the volunteer battalions have different beliefs, but most of them believe that they oppose the communist party (sic!!) that is killing Ukrainian civilians”.

As for South Korean reactions to the Ukrainian events in general, the following should be noted as of yet: on the one hand, South Korea is walking along with the world, but on the other, it is keeping at the tail end of it and is not going to get ahead of itself. Most of the emotional reporting in the South Korean media is reprints of Western publications, and there have been no particular acts of Russophobia towards the Russian-speaking population so far.

For the South Korean population, the special military operation is still a “backyard conflict” and Seoul does not intend to get actively involved in it. Thus, on April 20, the director of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration Kang Eun-ho noted that supplies of South Korean-made tanks and fighter jets to Ukraine “will make little sense” because it “will take months” to master this equipment before it can be used.  So far, the ROK has only supplied Ukraine with non-lethal military items such as helmets, body armor and first-aid kits.  Seoul later said it was considering expanding military support to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia through additional deliveries of military products, but there is no talk of transferring lethal equipment and weapons to Kiev, as this “requires the most detailed consideration”.

However, Ottawa is asking Seoul if it can send dozens of thousands of 155 mm artillery shells because of the shortage of Canada’s own ammunition it has been sending to Ukraine recently. Sending ammunition to Canada could be a problem for Russian-Korean relations, but this is a topic for future articles.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.