I think if I had to do it all over again and I got to choose, I’d be Ken Rhee.
He pretty much checks all of the boxes for being a 21st-century badass superhero, except being able to take flight under his own power. And rumor is, he’s working on that one.
While preparing for my interview with Ken, I quickly discovered that he’s a massive celebrity in South Korea, where he was born. His YouTube channel, ROKSEAL, has almost 800 thousand followers. In a recent interview with Korea Now, the host described him as “The most famous personality in South Korea.” Damn, I thought, “Who is this guy, and what has he done?”
I was asked to interview him because he recently returned from a deployment to Ukraine with the International Legion.
If you haven’t already heard of Ken Rhee, I figured I’d start your introduction to him the same way I received mine; through this YouTube video. Go watch the first couple of minutes of it; I’ll wait. Oh, just so you know, it contains some blood and NSFW language; viewer beware. Ken would later tell me that’s the closest he’s been to dying. It was one of those situations where if you were over by where you were taking a piss two minutes ago, you’d be dead now. This footage seems to be straight out of an action movie, but I assure you, it’s quite real. To add to the drama and suspense, their vehicle (obviously not military) broke down while they were under small arms fire. Such was the experience of LT Ken Rhee fighting with the International Legion in Ukraine.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Ken was born in South Korea and came to the United States at an early age, where he attended school up to and including graduating from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He found out during his application to the US Naval Academy that he was not a US citizen. Can you imagine that? One day finding out suddenly that you were not the American you always considered yourself to be? His parents explained to him that since he was born in South Korea and they had never applied for US citizenship for him, he was South Korean.
“Fine,” he thought. He had always wanted to join the Navy; now, he’d be joining the South Korean (the Republic of Korea, or ROK) Navy. In 2007 he did just that, was commissioned as an officer, and became a ROK Navy SEAL. After multiple deployments for the ROK, he had the opportunity to attend BUD/S in the US Navy, where he was a member of class 294. Following BUD/S, he attended SQT and was awarded his trident. To my knowledge, he’s the only man to have ever completed both grueling SEAL programs. A true international badass.
I hope you enjoy reading the SOFREP interview with LT Rhee as much as I did talking with him.
SOFREP: Some of our readers watched your latest video where you were in Ukraine, and the driver of your vehicle had a nasty-looking head laceration.
LT Rhee: Yeah, he cracked his head open pretty good.
SOFREP: Was he alright?
LT: Rhee: Yeah, he was maybe out of it for maybe two, three weeks. He got surgery, but then he was back in the game after that…so it wasn’t too bad.
SOFREP: They [the readers] wondered how bad that guy was injured; some didn’t realize that superficial head wounds tend to bleed that much. Once he realized he was OK, he wanted a souvenir pic of it.
LT Rhee: (laughs) I think he was pretty out of it; he had a concussion.
SOFREP: You grew up in the States, right?
LT Rhee: I did. So, I was born in South Korea, but I grew up in the States. Elementary school, Junior High School, High School…all the way to college. I went to VMI, Virginia Military Institute.
SOFREP: I understand that after you graduated, you went back to Korea.
LT Rhee: After I graduated from VMI, I went back to Korea, joined the Navy, went through officer candidate school (OCS), got commissioned, and became a Korean SEAL. Then I did a couple of deployments in Somalia. Then after these deployments, I had an opportunity to go to US SEAL training…US BUD/S…I applied for that and did that. I think it was about two weeks before graduation, the commander of BCT at the time, he came up to me and said I was hand-selected for SQT, which is SEAL Qualification Training. So I actually got to go through the entire SEAL pipeline. BUD/S, the junior officer training course, and SQT. It was pretty much a two-year pipeline…I got pinned, then I came back to Korea.
SOFREP: So you were actually a member of the US military and Korean military concurrently?
LT Rhee: Yeah, in a way. So I got to go through Korean SEAL training and US SEAL training. So, I have two tridents.
SOFREP: You’re probably the only one. I’m not aware of anyone else who’s done that.
LT Rhee: Yeah, I believe that I’m the only foreign officer that was able to able to go to SQT, not just the only foreign officer, but the only foreigner, enlisted or officer, I was the only one who was able to go to SQT.
SOFREP: Did you ever deploy with the US SEALS?
LT Rhee: No… uh, actually, in a way, I did in Ukraine because there were a few team guys there…US team guys.
SOFREP: I remember hearing in the interview after the combat footage on the YouTube video that your government, the South Korean government, wasn’t letting people go to Ukraine.
LT: Rhee: That’s correct; it’s against the law to go to Ukraine.
SOFREP: Has anyone come after you for that once you got back?
LT Rhee: (smiles) Oh, yeah, I had 15 cops waiting for me. So, we landed and were taxiing to the door. Before the door opened, there was an announcement that everyone on the plane had to stay seated; no one could get up. Once the door opened, all these dudes started pouring into the plane. They came up to my seat, showed me their badge, and said, “It’s time to go.” I counted them and thought, “you sent 15 suits after me; I wasn’t going to make a run for it.” (laughing). But they didn’t put handcuffs on me. They questioned me and told me that because we still have COVID restrictions in Korea, I’d have to be self-isolated for a week, and I would get my investigation after that.
SOFREP: And you had a torn ACL at the time, so you really weren’t going anywhere. How’s that doing now?
LT Rhee: I was first diagnosed at the Ukrainian military hospital, and they said it was ACL tears and I got checked in Korea when I got back, and my Korean doctors are saying that I tore my meniscus…in both of my knees. So, I’m going to go through surgery in mid-July, and fortunately, it’s not going to be a very big surgery; they’re 100% that I’ll get better, back to my feet within a few months. That was ultimately the reason I ended up leaving the country and coming back to Korea.
SOFREP: How was the medical care you received in Ukraine?
LT Rhee: In Ukraine, especially on the front lines, there aren’t any adequate hospitals. Even on operations, there’s pretty much no MEDEVAC or CASEVAC plan…so, medically, it’s really tough out there. The biggest military hospital would be in Kyiv; even in that hospital, I noticed that their operating rooms aren’t very sanitary because there are so many operations being conducted there. Obviously, they’ve been overloaded because of the war. It’s a tough situation.
SOFREP: So, how long were you in country?
LT Rhee: I was in country for approximately three months.
SOFREP: Do you plan on going back after your knee rehab?
LT Rhee: Yeah, that’s the plan. After my whole situation in Korea, I’m not sure how that’s going to work. I’m going to try to request permission now that we have a new President and a new administration…the atmosphere is a lot different now. We’ll see. I can’t be certain for now, but personally, yes, I’d like to go back. I have my teammates…I talked to one of them today; he’s a former agency guy and a former Green Beret, and he’s like, “you need to come back out here, you know,” and I’m like, yeah, man, I miss it. (smiling broadly) I do want to go back. So, we’ll see what happens.
SOFREP: From our end, we’re hearing that the Russians are pretty jacked up, there are morale issues, resupply issues, and troops are abandoning their posts and refusing to go back. Nothing seems to be happening to them as a result. Have you seen this?
LT Rhee: Well, morale is definitely bad, and I saw that first hand. I’ve worked with the Ukrainian Navy SEALS, the 73rd Center, and on the last operation where we were working together, they caught a few Russians. And what Russians are telling us, the prisoners, they were saying that a lot of them are deserting and there’s a full-scale operation with the Russians trying to find their own deserters (laughs) So, that’s how bad it is. In terms of equipment and weapons, they definitely have good weapons out there, but they also have the sh*tty side as well. Because Russia is so big, and their military is so huge, you’ll see both sides.
I remember being told before going to Ukraine people were telling me, “Oh, their training isn’t very good, their technology sucks,” and whatever, but when I got there, I’ve seen some good fighters. I’ve s en some good planning on their part as well, and I saw the part they weren’t very good at. But, for the most part, I think their strategy has definitely changed after losing Kyiv, Bucha, and Irpin. So, they definitely brought in new officers to change up their strategy, to change up their tactics…and it’s getting tough now.
SOFREP: Why do you think they have retreated to the eastern part of the country to regroup instead of trying to take everything at once?
LT Rhee: Yeah, they realized it was just too tough…they did a lot of cowboy sh*t at the beginning of the war, and they got all the way to the outskirts of Kyiv and were almost successful at it, too; that’s the scary thing. But I think they realized that the Ukrainian fighting spirit it’s strong. So the thought, “We can’t do this; we’re just stretched too thin.” So they pulled back, concentrated most of their forces in the east, and in the south, near the Black Sea, and they definitely changed up their strategies because they were taking a lot of losses.
On the Ukrainian side, especially the US…the international community, they’re coming together…they’re helping the war effort. You’ve got the International Legion like I was part of; you have advisors like me going in there and working with the Ukrainian Special Forces. So, I think it’s really pissing off the Russians. But I don’t believe the Russians will be successful in taking over the country, that’s for sure. I think they’re going to have a tough time even gaining more ground…but we’ll see. What I m worried about is that people are starting to forget about what is going on right now…the war is dragging out; it’s going on for a while, and people are not interested in the war anymore, which could result in the international community not helping as much. But, at the same time, the Ukrainians, they are losing soldiers. They have about 200 soldiers dying each day, so if their numbers are going down and people are not interested in the war, then that might be catastrophic in the future.
So, I’m what I’m trying to do out here in Korea is let people know that there’s still a lot of fighting going on. Ukrainians, they still need all the help they can get. The international community needs to support the war effort, so that’s one of the things I’m trying to do.
SOFREP: Do you think the international aid is being put to good use? All the weaponry that has been sent?
LT Rhee: Oh, yeah. It’s helping tremendously. My unit got to use the Javelins that were sent over. I know the howitzers they were coming over as I was doing my last operation, and they’re helping a lot. I mean, it’s actually changing the tide of the war. So, I hope that they continue to go to Ukraine, and it’s not just the Javelins or the howitzers…I know switchblades went in as well. I was just talking to my former teammates who utilizes switchblades very well, and they were able to get a lot of good kills with them.
So hopefully that kind of support…you know the humanitarian support is very important as well, the water, the food, the MREs and all that stuff, but the main [thing] would be the weapons, and I hope that doesn’t stop, especially from the US because they can’t send troops over officially, so, what can they do? Continue with the arms. That’s gonna really change the tide of war.
I’m really grateful to the US as well; most of the International Legion are Americans most of my teammates were Americans, so the US definitely has a foothold in Ukraine; it’s pretty crazy. I think most of the Legionnaires are American or British.
SOFREP: We really don’t hear a lot in the mainstream media about individual US citizens getting involved in the fighting. You’ll hear about the occasional SF guy taking early retirement, and then a few weeks later, he is on a plane to Ukraine, but that’s about it.
LT Rhee: Oh, yeah, there are guys like that. You’ve got a whole bunch of guys. You’ve got guys from the 75th Ranger Regiment, from the SF Groups, from the SEAL teams, from JSOC, from the Agency…It’s the same with the British side as well, SAS guys, paratroopers, good bunch of guys.
Everyone here at SOFREP thanks LT Rhee for taking the time to talk with us about his experiences in Ukraine. We wish him the best with this surgery and hope that he realizes his wish to get back out there in the action again.
You can keep track of him on his Instagram account here.