26.04.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the “South Korean Contractors” in Ukraine (and More)


The article about the misadventures of a “YouTube star” seeking to jump on the Ukrainian crisis hype train caused a lot of interest and questions. In particular, whether Lee Geun and his makeup artists bought enough hand cream and whether the rumor launched by another anonymous Telegram channel was true or not that in response to the proposal of someone from the Russian government to lift sanctions from North Korea, someone from the government of South Korea threatened that in this case Seoul would send to Kiev all the Russian military equipment which was used by Yeltsin’s regime in 1990s to pay for South Korean investments and goods.

Since nobody else except this anonymous person in his Telegram channel mentioned any threats like these, this latest information can be surely qualified as a fake; moreover, as was said on April 11 by the representative of the Ministry of Defense of South Korea, Colonel Boo Seung-chan, as well as by the Minister of Defense Suh Wook to his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov, South Korea would not supply Ukraine with lethal weapons. Suh Wook explained that there were restrictions on supplies of such weapons to foreign countries, given the security situation in the Korean peninsula and the need to maintain the state of combat readiness for South Korean armed forces. Interestingly enough, there are claims that before the talks of the heads of defense departments took place, similar requests were received by the Government of South Korea from the US Embassy.

However, back in March, South Korea supplied to Ukraine non-lethal military aid worth 1 billion won (USD 804,000), including bulletproof helmets and blankets, as well as medicines, tents and dry rations (totally 20 items), and in April another supply worth 2 billion won (USD 1.6 million) is scheduled, which will also include tents, helmets, blankets, dry rations, medicines, etc.

The author does not have information on how much hand cream was spent, but its potential consumer is still alive. In any case, on March 30, he posted another emotional photo on his Instagram. Apparently, since he arrived in Ukraine, there have been many rumors about him, and to dispel them, he wants to inform his subscribers that he is in a group with foreign contractors from the United States and the UK, they have moved to another district and are participating in an offensive operation: “… My team received and completed several secret missions…”

A total of nine persons from South Korea, including Lee Geun, arrived in Ukraine.  As the Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong reported to the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, three out of those nine persons have returned to Korea, while the location of two Koreans is unknown and they are considered missing.

Another 25 Koreans are still in Ukraine, but that’s another story. Twenty one of them (mostly missionaries) expressed their willingness to stay there under any circumstances, while four are ready to leave, but one is in the Russia-controlled city of Kherson. The remaining three Koreans cannot leave immediately, as they have local relatives.

Meanwhile, the police of South Korea are investigating cases of violation of passport legislation against Lee Geun and 9 other people who entered Ukraine as volunteers or contractors. The cases are handed over to the Seoul International Crimes Investigation Department. It should be noted that since mid-February, South Korea has prohibited Korean citizens to enter the country without the permission from the government, and therefore any unauthorized trip is considered a crime. According to the Passport Act, individuals who violate this rule can be sentenced to one year in prison or penalized up to 10 billion won (USD 8,136), as well as have their passports confiscated or cancelled.

More details are known about some of the stories. Thus, on March 22, a representative of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that a conscript soldier of the Marine Corps, who went to Poland without permission during his vacation, is in the custody by the Ukrainian authorities. The soldier was going to “help Ukraine in the fight against the Russian invasion” and join the foreign Legion, tried to enter Ukraine from Poland, but at the Ukrainian border checkpoint he was denied entry, after which the Ukrainian authorities intended to pass him over to the South Korean officials in Poland.

The last information about him in South Korean media was that the authorities’ efforts to have this Marine Corps soldier, who is currently in Poland without permission to travel abroad, safely return back home have stalled due to his refusal to return. The officials from the South Korean Embassy are waiting for a possibility to contact him outside the checkpoint in Poland, where the man was delivered to after being refused entry to Ukraine. At the same time, the soldier allegedly “for an unknown reason” refuses to leave the checkpoint, while the South Korean Embassy officials are not allowed to enter.

It should be noted that active military personnel of South Korean armed forces must obtain a preliminary permit before traveling abroad during their vacation. Otherwise, they may be punished for desertion.

On April 14, Yonhap news agency reported that a 40-year-old photographer was put under a police investigation for entering Ukraine without government permission.  The man entered the battle-torn country via Poland in early March to take photos of the war, stayed there for about two weeks, after which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea filed a complaint against him, and the Gyeonggi province police department detained the photographer for violating the Passport Act. After the investigation is completed, the case will be passed over to the prosecutor’s office.

The latest sensational story was about a tourist who was also a YouTube blogger who was detained by Ukrainian border guards after crossing the country’s border in an attempt to take photos of the border zone without permission. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, the youtuber said that he accidentally entered the territory of Ukraine, when he was taking photos on April 8 at the border between Ukraine and Romania. “Someone was waving at me, and I came closer to take a picture of that person. It was a Ukrainian border guard,” the youtuber said.  Then, with the support of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the youtuber was sent back to Romania, after which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the border crossing was unintentional, and decided not to take any legal action against him.

As it turned out, most of the border between Romania and Ukraine runs in a field with no well-defined borders (that’s right, no wall, not even a fence!), with a Ukrainian city just a short walk away.

This would be too sad, if it wasn’t so funny, but the author will definitely write about the end of the secret mission of a combat diver in the Ukrainian steppes.

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”.