La Guerre de Corée soixante ans après

Syngman Rhee in May 1951
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The Korean War 60 Years Later: Between History and Memory The Korean War, a major Cold War conflict and one of the bloodiest wars in the second half of the 20th century, broke out on 25 June 1950. It was the first major test for the UN, which called on Member States to raise an international military force in order to keep a new world war from breaking out. The participation of France, which sent a battalion of volunteers who won glory on several occasions, cleared the way for "Opex" and sealed a partnership with South Korea.
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At the end of the Second World War Korea, a country that had been united since the 7th century, was divided into two temporary occupation zones, one Soviet, the other American, without taking the Korean people's aspirations into account. In the context of the Cold War, separate institutions were set up and the joint US-Soviet commission's negotiations failed. Despite the UN's arbitration, it was unable to prevent the creation of two Korean States in 1948. The desire for reunification and hardening confrontation between the two blocs were two factors leading to the outbreak of the war on 25 June 1950 after a long, complex decision-making process marked by Stalin's caution and the evolution of the international situation in East Asia.

At the North Korean government's request, the Soviets had trained a strong army and equipped it with tanks and planes. In contrast, the Americans had supplied South Korea with neither tanks nor heavy artillery, considering its army more of a domestic order-keeping force. Moreover, Washington was afraid of strengthening Syngman Rhee's troops: (1) the South Korean leader was also eager to reunify the peninsula. But South Korea was a traditional country where many people were sympathetic to leftist ideas, although they did not have a deep knowledge of the subtleties of Marxist dialectics.

A yearning for social justice, desire for land redistribution (agrarian reform was already under way in the North), unemployment and economic crisis resulting from separating the industrial north from the fundamentally agricultural south hardened feelings and widened political rifts. What's more, the police, heirs to the Japanese kempeitai, were known for their brutality, almost systematic use of torture and unfortunate tendency to fire into crowds. After a rash of police brutality incidents, an uprising broke out on Chejudo, the south's big island, in April 1948 and a gendarme regiment mutinied in October. The crackdown by the police and undisciplined, unpaid auxiliaries made up of radical anti-communists, often refugees from North Korea, sparked a spiral of violence and repression that rocked the legitimacy of Syngman Rhee's government. On 25 June 1950 the North Korean army invaded the South, unleashing a war (2) that lasted over three long years until July 1953. It was the most serious international event since the Second World War, more significant than the Greek Civil War, Iranian crisis and Berlin blockade.

In the minds of Westerners, particularly Americans, the attack was a new manoeuvre by Stalin. In reality, in 1948 North Korean leader Kim II-Sung had already decided to reunify Korea through war if it could not be achieved by any other means. At first Stalin, who wanted peace on his borders, objected. But Mao's victory, the foundation of the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union's detonation of its first atomic bomb changed his strategic view. According to recent research, the Soviet strongman, fearing closer ties between the People's Republic of China and the United States, wanted to weaken his allies and his foes simultaneously by pitting them against each other in Korea. The conflict began as a civil war between two artificial States, both of which claimed the mantle of Korean legitimacy, but became international when the United Nations Security Council called for the creation of an "international police force" organised under the UN's aegis and led by the United States, which sent the biggest contingent, in accordance with the Security Council resolutions of 27 June and 7 July 1950.

The Cold War heated up and one of the 20th century's bloodiest conflicts broke out. In three days North Korea's armed forces captured a nearly deserted Seoul. By late August, as the United States began moving poorly armed troops in from Japan, the North's seemingly unstoppable army was rushing southward. But the Americans and South Koreans eventually held their ground on a defensive line at the Naktong River, which protected the Pusan pocket. Meanwhile, General MacArthur and the Pentagon organised the transport of reinforcements and equipment, while 16 countries answered the UN's call. The United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Thailand, Colombia, Ethiopia, Greece, Turkey, the Philippines and even tiny Luxembourg contributed to the UN's military effort. Other countries sent hospital ships.

Despite deep reservations on account of its commitments to Indochina and Western European rearmament, France eventually agreed to send troops. René Pleven (3) and Jean Létourneau (4) understood that France not only had to keep its international rank, but also stand by the United States militarily and politically if it expected American help in Indochina or Europe. They created a "volunteer battalion".

The French UN Battalion in Korea (BF/ONU) was trained in Auvours (Sarthe) and integrated into a structure called the French UN Land Forces, made up of a general staff reinforced with specialists, and the battalion itself. The defence ministry intended to use this as an opportunity to gather information, in particular on the advantages and drawbacks of US vs. Soviet tanks, the use of tactical aviation or the fight against cold. The battalion included volunteers from the active and reserve ranks, with priority given to battle-tested "reservists"; there were many just five years after the end of the Second World War and at a time when the Indochina War was in full swing.

On 15 September, as the French volunteers were still training in France, General MacArthur, who had received the necessary reinforcements, launched an amphibious operation at Inchon, Seoul's port, and the forces at Pusan went on the offensive. By the end of the month most of South Korea had been liberated and President Rhee entered a ravaged Seoul. South Korea was liberated, despite the presence of Communist guerrillas, who took in the remnants of the North Korean army trapped by the Inchon operation and the reconquest, but neither Syngman Rhee nor MacArthur intended to stop there. In early October the South Koreans began advancing north of the 38th parallel. The Americans joined them as soon as the UN passed a resolution allowing them to cross the border.

The UN army swiftly captured Pyongyang but in the winter of 1950, as the North's government took refuge at the border, China, after several warnings, sent its "volunteer army" to rescue the tottering Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The Chinese, who made clever use of the terrain and meteorological conditions, drove back the UN and South Korean forces. In January Seoul was evacuated again as the Chinese volunteers stepped up the pressure but in February the Americans managed to spring back under General Ridgway's command. In the spring of 1951, success in the air and the slow reconquest of territory the Americans lost enabled them to gradually fight their way back up to the 38th parallel.

The fighting bogged down on a front running more or less along this artificial line. MacArthur advocated total war but Truman rejected his hardline bellicosity and sabre-rattling declarations, which jeopardised Washington's policy: he eventually relieved the old soldier of his command. Some of the tension eased and the Communists agreed to negotiate. Many incidents and interruptions stalled the talks, which took place first in Kaesong, then in Panmunjom. The issue of repatriating prisoners of war posed a problem soon after the Allies set down the principle of free choice of the repatriation destination: tens of thousands of North Korean captives did not want to go home. The talks were broken off several times. Meanwhile, the war dragged on. American air raids destroyed around 80% of North Korea's cities and industries. The destruction had a severe impact on the Chinese and North Koreans, who lost many men, and prompted the Soviets to send massive amounts of equipment, pilots and mechanics. Soon they were deploying entire anti-aircraft units in North Korea and trying to keep UN planes out of the skies above the country, while the Communist artillery was becoming more powerful. The Korean War was the Cold War's hottest conflict because US and Soviet planes clashed in the skies above Korea for at least two years.

Washington and Moscow did everything they could to hide that dimension of the conflict. They kept the fighting between their forces secret in order to avoid a wider war. MacArthur's plans to bomb China or use atomic weapons were eventually rejected. Incidents of US fighter planes shooting down Soviet aircraft were hushed up. Neither power wanted to start another world war.

The talks made faster headway after Stalin's death in March 1953. The Kremlin wanted to ease certain tensions in Asia and Europe. The main belligerents finally signed the armistice in July, ending a war that lasted over three years and cost two to three million lives. The Korean War gave the French UN battalion a chance to prove its mettle. In three years the unit covered itself in glory in places such as Chipyong-ni and Twin-tunnels, 1037, Putchaeteul, Crèvecoeur and ArrowHead. Experts say the French battalion was the UN army's most decorated unit, with two South Korean presidential citations, three American citations and a plethora of French citations. It never abandoned its positions or retreated under enemy fire. Despite that impressive record, and although France's contribution to the Korean War paved the way for the French tradition of "Opex" (5) in the service of the UN, the memory of this brilliant participation was obscured for a long time. After modest beginnings in 1948, with the monitoring of the Arab-Israeli truce, the Korean War gave France the opportunity to become more heavily involved in UN operations, starting a tradition that has continued to the present day: in 1995 France was the leading contributor of peacekeeping forces, deploying over 5,000 men (6) worldwide. Today that figure is 8,800. In 2007 a "trail of remembrance" was built on the sites where French troops fought and had their main camps in South Korea thanks to a partnership between the national organisation of French UN forces veterans and friends (ANAAFF/ONU), the Korean association for remembrance of French participation in the Korean War, and various French and South Korean organisations and foundations. The trail of remembrance includes the Suwon monument, the monument dedicated to the doctor and major Jules Jean-Louis (the third statue dedicated to a foreigner in all of Korea}, the United Nations cemetery in Pusan, the names on the Seoul war memorial, and commemorative steles and plaques recalling the French battalion's sacrifices in Korea in French, Korean and English under the title "Pour la liberté". Students from Seoul's Lycée Français and neighbouring schools are associated with various ceremonies, keeping alive and strengthening the perception of France as a friend and partner of South Korea.

A South Korean ambassador to France recently said that the establishment of Franco-Korean relations as early as 1886 and the French battalion's participation in the Korean War make France the Republic of Korea's "natural ally", an expression that is laden with meaning in a context of rising tension with the North and international condemnation of the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010. Through their organisation, BF/ONU veterans have long been a lever of French influence and a basis of Franco-Korean friendship, but the trail of remembrance of France's participation in the Korean War, a bridge between generations, will be a symbol of the fraternity of arms between the two armies, which was commemorated in 2010 during ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the war's outbreak. In May 2010 national and local South Korean officials warmly welcomed (7) those who fought for the Republic of Korea's freedom, and in Paris South Korean officials and veterans had the distinguished honour of lighting the flame of the Unknown Soldier.


(1) Former head of the government in exile, elected president of South Korea in July 1948. (2) See Kim Yòng-myòng, Koch'yò ssùn Hanguk hyòndae chòngch'i-sa (Contemporary Political History of Korea, revised ed.), Seoul, 2001, p. 82. (3) President of the Council. (4) Minister of Associated States (French Union), formerly ministry of the colonies. (5) Exterior operations. (6) See François Léotard, "Les casques bleus français, cinquante ans au service de la paix", in André Lavier, La France et l'ONU (1945-1995), Arléa, Condé-sur-noireau, 1995. (7) The trip to South Korea jointly organised by the ANAAFF/ONU and South Korean officials took place in May 2010.