Ken Rhee says his time in Ukraine was worth the possible jail sentence
Controversial YouTuber Ken Rhee, a former special forces officer, raised eyebrows in March by entering Ukraine and joining the war-stricken country’s volunteer troops to fight against the Russian invasion. Ukraine was, and still is, under the Korean government’s travel ban imposed on Feb. 13 due to escalating tensions in the region, making Rhee’s actions illegal.
In an Instagram post back in March announcing his departure, Rhee stated that he will “take accountability and accept the punishment given” if he makes it back alive — which he did last month after sustaining an injury.
Now under police investigation, the YouTuber faces up to a year in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won ($7,750). While in quarantine earlier this month, Rhee sat down for an exclusive interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily via video call.
“I only came back because I got hurt,” said Rhee, explaining he fell in a sinkhole and his condition worsened after he attempted to ignore the injury throughout a five-day mission. “I have ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] tears in both of my knees. With that kind of injury, I can’t be in any operation that we have been doing. At this time, I have to heal.”
Rhee says that the doctor at the Ukrainian military hospital suggested that “Ukraine is not the best country to get knee surgery” and told him he “know[s] the Korean medical system is very good,” which played a part in his decision to return home.
Unlike his expectation, Rhee was not apprehended upon return but placed under a seven-day quarantine due to his expired Covid-19 vaccination.
“I was sitting in business class because I had a lot of heavy luggage,” he recounted his flight back from Warsaw. “When the plane landed and got to the gate, an official walked into the airplane, up to the front where I was sitting. He shows me his badge and he’s like, ‘We should go now.’ Everyone else was in their seat. I stepped off the plane and counted about 15 police officers who escorted me to baggage claim.”
Rhee was a lieutenant in the Korean Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Flotilla, also known as UDT/SEAL, until his discharge in 2014. He is now a military consultant and operates his YouTube channel Rokseal.
He entered the public eye in 2020 after appearing as a stern training instructor on the military-themed YouTube show “Fake Men,” even securing some television appearances and advertisement deals. However, his popularity took a hit later that year when his past sexual harassment conviction surfaced.
Rhee admitted he had been found guilty but maintains his innocence.
While some praised his departure for Ukraine as “brave,” the Korean public’s opinion has largely been skeptical. The law is the law, many Koreans say, and criticize Rhee for recklessly dismissing the government’s safety measures. Some worried that his participation in the war could lead to diplomatic strain with Russia, while others expressed disdain that the YouTuber was seizing the moment to create content. Rhee claims he simply “couldn’t sit back and watch.”
“I saw what was going on and I said, ‘Okay, this can’t happen. I wish there was something I could do to help,” he said. “At one point, [Ukrainian] President Zelensky came on national television and requested foreign fighters from anywhere in the world. As soon as I saw that, I thought that’s my calling […] I’m sure there are many ways to help the war effort [while staying in Korea]. But I was a military officer and I wanted to help in the best capacity that I could. For me, it’s being on the front lines; going out there leading a special operations team and helping defeat the enemy. I think my primary and best skill set is to be part of the plight.
“I think you can violate the law if you’re doing something good; for example, saving a life. If I’m going to break a traffic law to save a kid lying on the middle of the street, I’m going to do that. This is a travel ban that I broke. Minor laws like a traffic law or a travel ban, to save a life, I think you should be willing to break that law, because you’re going to do something that’s going to be much more important than a simple law.”
Rhee said after his acquaintances in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) warned him of possible repercussions, he did not bother to request to leave legally and boarded a flight to Poland.
“I was willing to risk going to jail for about a year,” said Rhee. “Obviously, if you could be sentenced to life in prison, I probably wouldn’t have gone or ever come back. I don’t think I could be any good if I’m going to be put in prison for the rest of my life. I have a lot of work to do to help society.”
Two other men accompanied Rhee to Ukraine but returned to Korea much earlier and also face punishment. One was fellow seal-turned-YouTuber named Logan and the other also a former Navy Seal according to Rhee. The latter was accused of being Rhee’s personal cameraman on the battlefield, as Rhee continued to actively post on social media. Rhee claims the man was there to collect evidence of Russia’s war crimes for the International Criminal Court, but was unable to, since he was not deemed “mentally prepared enough” to go on any missions.
Even if he is sentenced to prison, Rhee intends to waste none of his time.
“I can’t just sit in prison doing nothing, so I’ll definitely make use of my time,” he said. “I already have a plan. I’m probably going to write a book about what happened. Some have really given the ultimate sacrifice. I think writing a book is also very important; to recognize all the heroic and courageous actions that these guys have done. It’s actually crazy that there is an international legion fighting in Ukraine. You have these foreign fighters that come individually and create a team. That is so special, and that’s history right there.”
Rhee expects endorsements from Ukrainian authorities to prove helpful to some extent.
“Best case scenario, I think I’ll be charged and fined,” he said. “But I think these letters or a call from a politician in Ukraine — maybe the embassy in Korea will get involved and try to put in a good word for me — any of that would help, I think […] the Ukrainian government actually brought that up to me. Even before I left Korea, when I went to the [Ukrainian] embassy in Korea, the defense attaché said, ‘I understand that you might get in trouble when you come back. I can tell you we will do what we can to help your situation.’ We’ve been in contact ever since. The spokesman of the legion drafted a letter personally for me. They all offered it to me because they knew about the situation in Korea.”
As he awaits to find out what his fate will be, Rhee has been staying in the public eye — sharing photos and videos from his time in Ukraine on Instagram and visiting the Seoul National Cemetery on Memorial Day (June 6) decked out in his naval dress uniform.
Rhee says he would do it again and in fact wishes to go back if possible.
“I’m going to try to,” he said. “I just received a notice from MOFA and the police department that I’m no longer allowed to leave the country. Who knows how long I won’t get my passport back. Already, my teammates are like, ‘When are you coming back?’ I still feel a sense of duty that I should get back because the war is not over.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]