On August 17, 2023, South Korean YouTuber and former Navy SEAL Lee Geun, 39, accused of illegally entering Ukraine in 2022 “to fight the Russian invasion,” was sentenced to a 1.5- year suspended term.
This popular video blogger once gave rise to rumors that “South Korean special forces are fighting in Ukraine,” which prompted this author to clarify that the rumor was about a star of tacticool videos on YouTube, who had a group of cameramen and makeup artists accompany him as he went to war.
Lee Geun spent three months in Ukraine before returning home with a knee injury on May 27, 2022. On June 10, 2022, he voluntarily appeared before the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and was interrogated. He confessed to the majority of the charges, including the breaking of the ROK official’s travel ban to Ukraine. On June 14, his case was referred to the prosecutor’s office for charges to be brought against him, with a ban on leaving the country.
Shortly later, it was claimed that Lee Geun informed the police that he had killed at least two Russian soldiers while engaged in combat. This information was not well received. The most significant audience reaction was: “And what was he doing there? What Korean interests was he protecting?” That didn’t stop Lee from posting a video on his channel where he was allegedly running around the city near Bucha shooting at Russians.
According to the Korea Light Telegram channel, Lee was spotted at parties and actively participated in interviews throughout the course of the investigation. In these interviews, he discussed Korean students fighting in Ukraine, accused other Koreans of trying to fool him in Ukraine, explained why he flew to kill people but did not assist in saving people from floods, and threatened to sue anyone who brought up previous rape allegations.
On March 20, 2023, in the hallway outside a courtroom of the Seoul Central District Court, Lee Geun punched another YouTuber named Koo Jae-yeok. The latter allegedly stalked Lee and asked intrusive questions about a creditor to whom the special forces soldier owed a debt and demanded an apology; in response, the Navy SEAL swore and punched him once on the cheek.
When it became clear that Lee and Koo had known each other for a number of years but hadn’t spoken to one another since 2020, their “war” was actively played out in the yellow press. Lee enthusiastically supported some of the assertions Koo started to doubt, which caused the two former friends to grow distant from one another. Koo then started to post all the rumors about the former special forces soldier on his channel.
Koo responded by openly challenging Lee to a fist fight by saying: “I’m physically weak, and I don’t have much chance of winning, but I may get to hit you in the face at least once, and that will be enough for me to be happy.” Although his opponent was overweight, Lee bravely accepted the challenge and added two requirements: Koo must delete his YouTube channel and not start a new one. Police stepped in, warning Lee that he would face more violent charges for punching Koo in the face, and the “pen pal boxing” remained virtual.
Returning to the trial, Lee Geun claimed that by participating in hostilities, he was, in fact, protecting innocent people rather than Ukraine. Lee Geun pleaded guilty to violating South Korean law, apologized for breaking the law but insisted that he still stood by his decision to take part in the conflict.
Lee was already facing a possible year in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won for entering Ukraine illegally when another charge was brought against him. Lee Geun committed a hit-and-run in July 2022, shortly after returning to Korea when his car collided with a motorcycle. When questioned about the incident on the court’s sidelines, the Navy SEAL got angry and knocked the questioner’s smartphone from his hand.
The prosecution eventually requested a year and a half in prison for the former Navy SEAL, but the court sentenced him to probation and ordered him to do 80 hours of community service and 40 hours of safe driving lessons.
In conclusion: On the one hand, the Seoul Central District Court did sentence Lee Geun to prison despite Western pressure, without elevating him to being a hero. Regardless of his motivations, the court claimed that Lee’s presence and involvement in the Ukrainian volunteer army might place an unfair burden on his native country. However, on the other hand, the sentence is suspended, and it’s unclear what part of it is for marching in Ukraine and what part is for the traffic accident, especially since the average sentence for such hit-and-runs looks to be similar.
Knowing how many additional South Korean citizens or persons of Korean heritage are fighting in Ukraine and how many have been given unauthorized entry there will help us better comprehend the situation.
According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as of June 17, 2022, 13 South Koreans have entered Ukraine, of whom 4 have died, 8 have left the country, and 1 currently remains there.
Kim Mo, who identified himself as the “team leader of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine,” spoke with SBS News on February 23, 2023. Kim Mo had spent nearly nine years working for the Military Special Forces Command and the National Intelligence Agency before entering Ukraine in late October 2022 to “return the assistance that South Korea has previously received.” “My great-grandfather fought for independence under Japanese colonial rule, and my grandfather was shot in the Korean War… Back then, the whole world was helping us. Now we have to repay our debt. If we are indifferent to this war, what country will help us in the event of a second Korean War later?”
According to the 33-year-old Kim, the war is “extremely dangerous,” with roadways broken, blocked by mines, enemy UAVs targeting artillery and dropping grenades, and anti-tank missiles, among other hazards. As much as the Ukrainian side likes to brag about its drones, “the Russian military is ahead in terms of both numbers and capabilities of drones and is more active in the area of electronic conductivity, which interferes with radio waves.”
In particular, Kim pointed out that there is little gas and electricity in the frontline region, and there are no showers, so you must typically wipe your body with tissues.
Dozens of his team members are struggling in these extreme conditions, and 90% of Kim’s whole squad was killed in barely three months. Kim “was recently attacked by a tank gun, but he escaped direct attacks and saved his life by blocking shrapnel.” He was undergoing treatment in a hospital at the time of the interview for hearing loss and nerve damage caused by the constant combat stress, but he had no intention of ceasing fighting and returning home right away.
Before being questioned if he was frightened of being punished upon his return to Korea, Kim Mo stated that before he departed for Ukraine, he realized he could die there, so he was not afraid of anything except the death penalty. When asked if he knew of any other Koreans fighting in Ukraine, he stated he had only heard of one from another regiment.
Yonhap News Agency announced on May 20, 2023, that former Korean-born US Marine Corps officer Captain Grady Kurpasi, 50, who resigned in September 2021 and participated in combat operations in Ukraine as part of a foreign volunteer battalion, had been certified dead. He was reportedly initially involved in training Ukrainians, but as the fighting became increasingly fiercer, he took charge of a unit and was subsequently killed in action. Kurpasi had not been seen since April 26, 2022.
Previously, it was claimed that an ethnic Korean American, Paul Kim, who served in the United States Army for 12 years, fought in Iraq, and rose to the rank of captain, was killed in combat in Ukraine’s Nikolayev area. He had been fighting for the Ukrainian Armed Forces since August 2022, but on October 5, he was killed in a major Russian shelling.
On June 9, 2023, The Korea Herald reported on several penalties imposed on ROK nationals who entered Ukraine illegally. A 27-year-old South Korean national, whose identity was kept secret, was convicted at a district court in Wonju, Gangwon Province, of breaching the government of the Republic of Korea’s ban on going to Ukraine and making an unauthorized trip there in March 2022. He received a 3 million won ($2,300) fine. It was found that the individual flew from South Korea to Poland before entering Ukraine and staying there for six months. He planned to volunteer in Kiev-controlled armed forces.
Earlier in April, the Gwangju District Court fined a 38-year-old man 3 million won for unlawfully entering Ukraine last March and staying for a week while apparently not participating in hostilities. The Metropolitan Court found a 28-year-old Korean man guilty of a similar offense and fined him 3 million won. He only stayed in Ukraine for four days in the spring of 2022, intending to fight but changing his mind.
The story of a South Korean active-duty marine who tried to enter Ukraine while on leave to take part in combat operations is also over. Due to the quick response of the South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which alerted the Polish side, the Marine was prevented from crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border. Friends and acquaintances convinced him to return to Korea after a month in Poland, where he was detained. He was given a prison sentence of three years on November 3, 2022, by a military tribunal for deserting, insulting a senior officer, and interfering with official duties.
Therefore, it cannot be said that the ROK government ignores its citizens’ visits to Ukraine like governments in other nations do. While the brave YouTuber managed to get a suspended sentence and the current Marine received a real term, those who were merely intending to serve were only fined. The information about deceased or retired instructors does not apply to inhabitants of the Republic of Korea, but rather to US citizens of Korean descent. What awaits Kim Mo? We’ll see if he returns to Korea alive.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.