Ken Ree, a former seal from South Korea and now a fighter for the International Legion Fighting for Ukraine, talks about his combat experience, shares his impressions of Ukrainians’ military strategy and complains about the local climate.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, tens of thousands of volunteers from many countries have joined the Ukrainian military on the battlefield – well-trained, experienced and equipped fighters of the world’s strongest armies. Most of them joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense under the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which was created by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky especially for foreign citizens in late February.
Among such fighters, there is 38-year-old Ken Ree, a former navy seal, and lieutenant of the Special Forces of the Republic of Korea, who arrived in Ukraine in early March. After completing eight years of service, Ree earned a solid resume: holding several government positions in his homeland, working in the US and UN Departments, participating in a popular tv show about the military. He also started his own YouTube channel, which later reached 800,000 subscriptions.
Prior to arriving in Ukraine, the Korean former special services officer ran his own company, which provided advisory services to the military and police. He also was helping the entertainment industry to make military films. Another area of his business was the rescue of victims of global catastrophes, one of which, according to the Korean volunteer, is happening right now in Ukraine.
NV interviewed Ken Ree.
Why are you here, what was your motivation to fight for Ukraine?
Everyone has a reason to come to Ukraine. For me, this is absolutely a matter of morality. I saw on TV what was happening here, I could not believe that Russia could just invade a sovereign state. In my head, I knew who were the bad guys and who were the good guys.
Initially, President Zelensky said that soldiers were needed only from neighboring European countries. So I thought I wouldn’t be able to come from Korea. But when he explained that it could be volunteers from all over the world, I immediately packed my bags.
As a former special forces operator, I have skills that can really help the military here. If I am just sitting, doing nothing and watching CNN, it will be wrong. It’s like walking down the street and seeing two guys raping a woman. Will you just watch? Especially if you are trained to do something about it, if you have the experience to help. For me, this is a crime in itself – doing nothing. That’s why I’m here.
What does your family think about the decision to fight so far from home and for another country?
My mother is always worried – she is hysterical now, she does not like that I’m here. I try to calm her down, I tell my relatives that someone needs to go to Ukraine and help. And they react: “Why you? Someone else can do it! ” However, it is important for me to be here, even if my family does not agree with me – to help locals and the military.
What did you know about Ukraine before coming here?
I am here for the first time and, despite the fact that I came to the war, I am very glad to be here. Prior to that, I knew a little bit about Ukraine, because I studied international political science in college. This is one of the countries which are really interesting to me. I know that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, had a complicated history with Russia and nuclear weapons, which it renounced in exchange for peace and security. Which, obviously, did not happen.
Once I was in Russia – in Vladivostok. It is not far from Korea, and many Koreans travel there for sightseeing. So when I came to Ukraine, I noticed that it all reminded me of the history of South and North Korea. For a foreigner, at first glance, people seem to have a lot in common, such as similar language and appearance. But these are different countries that have always been at war with each other.
What was your combat experience, and have you already fought here in Ukraine?
As part of the Korean navy seals, we rescued hostages in Somalia: in 2009-2011 there were many counter-terrorist operations there, and I gained a lot of combat experience there. After that, I was in Iraq during quite difficult periods, just as I came to Ukraine – in the first week of the war, when Kyiv was under threat of enemy invasion.
Then we had successful missions in Irpin. But they were not very successful when two of my boys were injured. We fought against Russian tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers in the central park of Irpin, which we were trying to liberate. And I am happy to be part of two groups of liberators who eventually expelled the Russians.
After Irpin we went to the south of Ukraine. Now my team is still on a mission there, but I was injured during the last operation and have a few days to spend in the military hospital examination.
What did you like most about Ukraine and what was the hardest thing about being here?
I was very impressed by how kind and sensitive the Ukrainian people are to foreigners, even during the war no one was angry or annoyed. This is a unique situation: there is a cult of foreign fighters in Ukraine, and everyone is ready to help them.
And from the difficulties: when I arrived in Ukraine in early March, it was really very cold. It is colder than in Korea, so it was difficult to fight. We should always think about clothes, because we go on a four-five-day mission and sleep in places without electricity. One of my boys even had hypothermia, and we had to evacuate him.
The second is nutrition. At the forefront, it is not always good: for breakfast, lunch and dinner we eat chicken porridge. But every time we come to Kyiv to replenish our stocks, I love to taste local cuisine: the restaurants here are great, the traditional borsch is very good. Looks like tomato soup, but I like it.
How are relations with Ukrainians and other foreign legionnaires?
We had to work with Ukrainian special forces on the battlefield, and they are exceptional professionals – very well-trained fighters. But it was also quite difficult due to the great cultural and mental differences. I trained with the Korean and American military, where we always spent a lot of energy on planning. Ukrainian fighters are a little different, they are like a flash – they just go and fight, improvising. This is a very good fighting mentality, but I and many Americans or Britons have a culture shock because of the big difference in approaches to combat.
I met Georgians, but for me they are also very militant. Sometimes they don’t have good technique, training or strategy, especially weapons or equipment. However, they are fighting like real fearless warriors.
But there are few Koreans here: I think it’s me and maybe a few other guys right now. There have been about ten of them since the beginning of the war. Many Ukrainians are still surprised to see an Asian, because it is a very rare phenomenon.
How do you see the end of this war and what are your personal plans for the future?
If Ukraine does not win the war, any neighboring country that opposes Russia or tries to join NATO will be in danger. Russia will continue to attack, and it will never end. Therefore, I believe that this war is, in a sense, a world war.
I think it will either take a long time or Putin will die of disease or cancer. He’s not one of those guys who gives up easily. And Ukraine is definitely not going to give up. That is why the war will last for some time.
What does this mean for me? It is clear that one day I will have to return home to reboot – get better equipment, better prepare and come back here again. To continue to do what I do until Ukraine wins.
The problem is that my stay in Ukraine is considered illegal at home. Each country has different laws, and the Korean ones are very strange. Therefore, I think that when I return, they will try to arrest me at the airport only for participating in this war. I plan to receive several letters from the Ukrainian government, and I hope they will help me in court. I already have a lawyer. But even though I run the risk of being imprisoned, I still believe I made the right decision. I am happy to be here, influence the situation and work with Ukrainians.