When volunteer fighters from around the world flocked to Ukraine in the weeks after the Russian invasion in February last year, YouTuber and former South Korean Navy SEAL Rhee Keun—who also goes by Ken Rhee—was one of them. But upon returning to Seoul three months later with injuries sustained from the war, Keun wasn’t given a hero’s welcome. Rather, he was prosecuted for breaking South Korea’s travel ban to Ukraine.
On Thursday, the Seoul Central District Court gave the 39-year-old a suspended prison sentence—a reflection of the delicate balancing act South Korea has had to maintain throughout the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
(Rhee was also sentenced for charges of a hit-and-run in July last year that resulted in the injury of a motorcyclist, for which he has been ordered to attend 40 hours of safe driving classes and 80 hours of social service.)
Under the travel ban imposed by South Korean authorities in February 2022, those who entered Ukraine without approval face up to a year in prison or a maximum fine of 10 million won ($7,500). Prosecutors originally called for an 18-month prison sentence for Rhee in July, which the court on Thursday handed him but suspended it, meaning he likely won’t have to serve time unless he commits another offence during the suspension period.
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Besides Rhee, at least three other South Koreans have also been convicted of visiting Ukraine without authorization, according to local reports. In June, a 27-year-old man was fined 3 million won ($2,200) for going to Ukraine in March 2022 and staying there for six months with the intention of becoming a volunteer fighter. In April, another man similarly received a fine for entering Ukraine with Rhee—though he left after a week without engaging in battle. And in March, a 28-year-old man, who headed to Ukraine in March 2022 to fight but ended up leaving four days later, was also convicted and fined.
Rhee, who has appeared on reality shows and runs a YouTube channel with over 850,000 subscribers, said that he felt compelled to support Ukraine during the invasion. “You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying ‘no swimming,’ but you see someone drowning,” he told AFP in June last year, after he returned to South Korea. “It's a crime not to help.”
Days after Russia’s sudden invasion last year, Ukraine scrambled to cobble together an international legion, calling for fighters from all around the world to provide assistance to fend off Russian forces. An estimated 20,000 volunteers answered the call, even as governments like Australia and South Korea warned their citizens of legal repercussions for taking up arms in another country. (On the other hand, countries like Germany, Denmark, and Latvia gave the greenlight for their citizens to join the war.)
For South Korea’s government, volunteer fighters like Rhee cause a “headache” due to the political risk, Don S. Lee, assistant professor of politics at Sungkyunkwan University, tells TIME.
“Without consultation with the government, and just acting on one’s personal belief and mission,” he says, “that might have potentially adverse impact on international relations.”
While the U.S. too, which has repeatedly voiced its commitment to Ukraine, has advised citizens against volunteering to join the fight abroad—warning that Russia may treat them as mercenaries—Washington hasn’t actually barred people from going like South Korea has.
Despite its close alliance with the U.S. and prompt condemnation of Russia’s invasion in February last year, South Korea has been careful to limit the appearance of its backing of Ukraine’s war efforts, conscious of threatening its economic ties with Russia and risking greater Russian support of North Korea’s nuclear program.
“The Korean government is cautious,” says Lee. “South Korea is definitely not taking a neutral stance, but it’s not as explicitly clear as the U.S.”
South Korea has, however, helped Ukraine out in other ways. Days after Russia’s invasion, South Korea announced the tightening of export controls against Russia and joined Western countries in blocking some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system—a move that was lauded by U.S. leaders at the time. Last year, South Korea sent $100 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and it plans to send another $150 million this year. Meanwhile, conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai have agreed to support reconstruction projects in Ukraine.
Still, as one of the world’s top weapon exporters, South Korea has largely stopped short of directly arming the Ukrainian defense forces. Last month, in a surprise visit to Kyiv, President Yoon Suk Yeol said that South Korea would provide more military supplies, referring mostly to non-lethal equipment like body armor and helmets.
“I wonder what South Koreans will say when they see the latest Russian weapons are in the hands of their closest neighbors—our partners from North Korea,” Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's Deputy Chairman of the Security Council ominously wrote on Telegram in July.
Rhee expressed some optimism in June last year that the conservative government under the then-newly elected Yoon would not put him in jail. And in March, he pleaded guilty to the charge, saying, “I did not participate in the Russia-Ukraine war for Ukraine, but for the innocent people. I apologize for violating the passport law, but still think it was a good decision to participate in the war.”
Now, having been handed a suspended sentence, it seems like he was right about avoiding prison. But the court reiterated the view that it was wrong of him to join the fight in Ukraine, with the judge emphasizing on Thursday, paraphrased by local news, that doing so “could put an excessive burden on his homeland regardless of his intentions.”
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