One morning in December 2008, my Head of Department came to me with an interesting offer: "How about a trip to Korea next week? A delegation of veterans from the French Battalion of the UN is travelling there on a commemorative trip."
As a desk officer responsible for the Korean peninsula, like many of my colleagues I had been busy for several months with the French Presidency of the European Union, monitoring European-Chinese relations. It was probably a way for the Head of Department to reward me for my work by giving me a chance to take a short break from Europe.
A journey of remembrance
Three days later, at dawn in Orly airport, I met up with the delegation led by the French Minister of State for Veterans. Gathered amid a cheerful atmosphere were about 50 veterans from the French Battalion of the UN in the Korean War, several representatives from the French-Korea friendship group and its president. The Battalion left France in 1950 with a few hundred volunteers, which increased to over 3,400, working in rotation, over the course of the war. They fought in key battles (including Chipyong-ni, Heartbreak Ridge and Arrow Head) and 269 French volunteers and 18 Koreans who had joined the Battalion lost their lives, 1,350 were injured and several dozen were taken prisoners of war or declared missing in action.
The trip to South Korea, organized with the help of the French Embassy, was to mark the 55th anniversary of the end of the war and enabled the veterans and their close friends and family to revisit a number of remembrance sites. It was also an opportunity to pass on their memories to the younger generation, namely students from the French lycée in Seoul. Given that they were over 70 and even 80 years old, I found them to be in great shape and highly enthusiastic, despite it being the first trip back to Korea for some of them.
- Insignia of the French Battalion of the UN in Korea
- (source: French Army – Personal collection)
An unexpected Siberian stopover
After some official meetings and a visit to Panmunjom where the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed, the delegation was to follow the same route for the return trip, in a specially chartered Army aircraft. But during our 2 a.m. stopover in Novosibirsk, our plane had a fuel leak which forced us to remain on the ground. The veterans showed great patience as we waited in the airport’s small shopping centre, before finally being told that the maintenance technicians could not allow our plane to continue the flight. We would have to wait for the next plane to Paris, which would not be until the next day. I must say that the representatives accompanying the veterans showed great solidarity and while the Minister of State had promptly left on another flight to sort out the situation in Moscow, the representatives insisted on staying with the veterans in an uncomfortable and poorly-heated room with nothing but a little tea to drink.
The Battalion veterans, their families, and everyone else then spent what was left of the night in a hotel in Novosibirsk, with outside temperatures of -30°C. I think that despite everything, they were glad to be able to continue the adventure and spend a little longer in each other’s company. I was sharing a room with an associate of one of the representatives, and when we ran into each other a few years later in Singapore while I was working at the embassy there, we both recalled this anecdote. Diplomacy also means being conscious of a story of which you are the guardian, and sometimes the witness, as well as dealing with unexpected and enriching human experiences.