These South Korean Special Forces Went Rogue to Fight on the Frontlines in Ukraine

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War in February former military personnel from across the Western world have been drawn to the conflict to support the Ukrainian war effort, with their contributions coming in parallel to deployments of Western special forces and other assets to perform roles ranging from targeting to logistics. The New York Times, for one, referred to “a stealthy network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training” within Ukraine’s borders set up by the U.S. “C.I.A. personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, [Kiev], directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces… Commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, also have been working inside Ukraine… training and advising Ukrainian troops and providing an on-the-ground conduit for weapons and other aid,” it added, emphasising the sheer “scale of the secretive effort to assist Ukraine that is underway.” In parallel to the deep involvement of Western militaries and intelligence agencies have been more limited efforts by individuals from Western-aligned states to similarly support the war effort against Russia, which has been designated in Washington as one of four ‘Great Power Adversaries’ alongside China, North Korea and Iran. 

Former South Korean naval special operations officer the 38-year-old Rhee Keun, a U.S. born Korean who served in South Korea’s Marine Special Forces, was among Korean nationals with military training who sought to join the war effort against Russia. Having significant followings on YouTube and Instagram, Rhee posted on March 6 that he had sought to go to Ukraine for this purpose, but had been warned by the South Korean government that he could be criminally prosecuted from doing so. Citizens were banned from entering the war torn country, as well as regions of Russia and Belarus neighbouring it which were at risk. Rhee had gone to Ukraine regardless via an unofficial route with other former South Korean servicemen writing on Instagram on March 7 that “our team safely arrived in Ukraine. We’ll fight on the frontlines,” in response to which he was warned that he and his group’s passports could be revoked. The South Korean Foreign Ministry on March 11 called on law enforcement o investigate the case. 

On March 13 up to 180 foreign combatants overwhelming all of Western origin were killed in Russian missile strikes on facilities near Ukraine’s Polish border, with a Brazilian representative described seeing “special forces from all over the world” including from South Korea there: “And then very simply, all I know is that they are all dead. They have all been destroyed.” Rhee was subsequently presumed killed just a week after arriving, although South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported that he had tried to return to Poland after reaching Kiev, and “because of the fierce fighting felt his life was in danger.” Rhee later confirmed he was alive on instagram, after which it was reported that his comrades had returned to Korea and would face criminal charges, with 57.63% of South Koreans polled considering it necessary to prosecute Rhee himself. He would return to Seoul in May after sustaining injuries in combat, stating at the time an intention to again fight in Ukraine.

As a widely followed social media personality Rhee Keun’s movements and those of his associates could be more easily tracked, but those of several other South Korean personnel were more difficult to follow. Yonhap news agency was among sources to report that a number of South Koreans expressed interest in joining the war effort, while reports from foreign fighters in Ukraine have often referred to the presence of South Koreans in the country including former special forces – presumably also in violation of Korean law. The extent of their involvement remains uncertain. Such reports have gained new significance as North Korea, with which the south remains at war, has reportedly planned to provide greater support to the Russian war effort.