The Right Side of the Present: Ukrainian NGO Leader in Seoul Seeks South Korea’s Help

By | September 26, 2022 | No Comments

Sir Ian Kershaw famously described the road to Auschwitz as having been “paved with indifference.” While not entirely indifferent, South Korea’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been, and continued to be, less than satisfying for Kyiv and its liberal-democratic partners. Appealing to South Korea’s own experience some seven decades ago, one member of Ukrainian civil society, who only recently returned to her home in Kyiv after fleeing Russian bombing, came to Seoul to press for greater government assistance to Ukraine from the ROK. 


“To stay neutral in the face of Russia’s invasion is to support genocide” says former Ukrainian official visiting South Korea seeking government support[1]


“To stay neutral during this war is to support genocide. I hope South Korea will not be the last country to lean on Russia’s imperialist power.”

These are the words of Olena Tregub, a former government official from Ukraine’s economic ministry who met with Kyeonghyang Shinum on September 22 at a hotel in Seoul while on a visit to the ROK to present evidence of Russian war crimes committed as part of its war in Ukraine. “Ukraine feels incredibly far from the people of South Korea, and there are limits to what they see in the media” she said. “I’ve come here to convey the fear Ukrainian people feel about torture and mass killings.” 

Tregub stated “South Korea got a lot of help from other countries during the Korean War, so we figured you could sympathize with our situation. Unfortunately, South Korea has not stood on our side to the extent that we expected.” South Korea is not actively supporting Ukraine with weapons supplies, and has only passively participated the sanctions guidelines the United States has outlined. “It is to be expected that South Korea would return to being an economic partner of Russia’s as it was in the prewar period, but Russia is no doubt responsible for committing horrible war crimes” she said. 

Tregub, who has also worked for the New York Times and the UN, now serves as the director of a powerful anti-corruption NGO called “NAKO”[2]. Civil society is stronger in Ukraine compared with other Eastern European countries. It is deeply involved in policy making, including legislation in the Verhovna Rada[3]. Tregub has been making the rounds to friendly countries meeting with academic and government figures rallying support for her country. From September 20th she spent several days meeting with an array of South Korean politicians, diplomats and academics. “The results of this war, which is a fight between Goliath wielding a cudgel and David wanting to live in peace, have been painfully obvious” she said. 

Tregub described Ukraine’s situation as being remniscent of WWII. Unusual circumstances continue, such as  students studying in math class when all of a sudden the teacher shouts “shelter” and the children quickly hide. Places necessary for daily living, such as pharmacies and supermarkets also close when air raid warnings are announced. The blocking of flights has also seriously affected Ukraine’s economy. “It takes more than two days to reach nearby Europe by car, but who’s going to keep doing business in Ukraine?” Tregub mused. 

A mass grave was recently discovered in the city of Izyum, Kharkiv province, which Ukrainian forces recently captured. Tregub says of this atrocity, which Russian soldiers allegedly carried out, “Several thousand people were tortured before being executed in the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, this is nothing new. This was a systematic and structured mass killing. I have heard from Russian prisoners that orders to kill civilians came down from high in the ranks.”

Speaking of Russia’s assault on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Tregub said “Russia is committing nuclear terrorism again Europe for leverage – they’ve attacked not just power lines, but pipes used to cool nuclear reactors, too.” She says Russia is deliberately attacking hospitals, schools food storage facilities and energy infrastructure so that people will either freeze or starve to death this winter. “President Zelensky has appealed to the International Court of Justice, and will continue pursuing Russian war criminals. He hopes that justice will be served there” she said.

Having left Kyiv when Russian air raids began last March, she returned earlier this month and is living with her parents. Her children live outside the country – indeed, many families have become “separated families”[4] due to this war. As Tregub says “The Ukrainian people are carrying on, going to work if they can, and in our digital day and age, are often working remotely from abroad.” 

Tregub, who left Korea on the 23rd, pleaded for “South Korea’s desperately-needed military support so that we can end the war.” “Whether South Korea wins or loses will have an effect on South Korea’s security in East Asia. If South Korea helps, it will open up new opportunities for the ROK. Don’t overestimate Russia’s power” she said. Speaking to the citizens of South Korea, Tregub said “The people of Ukraine need you. If we are to preserve democracy, we need peace. When South Korea needs help, Ukraine will be by your side” she added.


Original article by Kim Song-yi and Choi Seo-eun. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: “To stay neutral in the face of Russia’s invasion is to support genocide” says former Ukrainian official visiting South Korea seeking government support [러시아 침공에 대한 중립 유지는 집단학살 지지”···한국 정부 지원 호소한 우크라이나 전직 관료]” Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 25, 2022,

[2] Translator’s note 1: The full name translates as “Independent Anti-Corruption Commission”, but the Roman letters “NAKO” are used in the Ukrainian version of the organization’s website.

[3] Translator’s note 2: The original Korean was rendered as “National Assembly (국회)” yet has been translated using its Ukrainian name here, which is regularly employed in English.

[4] Translator’s note 3: The term in Korean, “isan kajok (이산가족)” refers to families separated by the division of the two Koreas, and as such carries a greater emotional significance for Korean-speakers than it otherwise would in English.  

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