Bid to share in Nobel denied U.S. Korean War vets


CHICAGO -- Thinking they had received long-awaited recognition, more than 100 Korean War veterans in the United States hoped to stand prouder at Memorial Day parades this year.

They plunked down $115 or more each in recent weeks for what was billed as "unique proof" that Korean-era soldiers were part of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1988 awarded to United Nations peacekeepers.

For that, they received a certificate from a Danish marketing firm emblazoned with the U.N. logo, bearing the signature of a Norwegian defense minister, certifying them as members of the U.N. peacekeeping forces.

It came with a simple white copy of the Nobel diploma. And it was packaged with a gold gilt "International Peace Prize Medal 1988" hanging from a light blue ribbon decked with the colors of the Norwegian flag and the words "The Nobel Peace Prize 1988."

But as the Chicago Tribune investigated the honors, Nobel Peace Prize officials said last week that Korean War veterans are not part of the 1988 prize.

It appears many who bought the medals may have been deceived. At best, they are victims of transcontinental confusion created when several officials with a Norwegian U.N. veterans association took it upon themselves to recognize the long-ignored Korean War veterans.

The truth seems to have been lost in translation.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee gave its vaunted Peace Prize in 1988 to U.N. peacekeepers who saw action beginning with the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 - three years after an armistice established a cease-fire in the Korean War - said Geir Lundestad, a historian and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo. Only one medal was awarded, presented to the U.N. with $339,000 in prize money.

The Bergen og Hordaland U.N.-Veteran Association in southern Norway lobbied Nobel officials and the government in the 1990s for permission to issue a commemorative medal and certificates, as a way for individual peacekeepers to share in the honor.

Nobel officials and Norwegian authorities said they agreed to allow them to create and market a medal. Today, it is considered one of Norway's highest honors.

The first deviation from the intent of that medal came in 1995.

The Bergen peace-keeping veterans association and its national parent organization decided to make the Norwegian Korean War veterans eligible for the medal, according to Erik-A Tangedal, a medal committee member, apparently without permission from the government.

Later, the veterans extended medal eligibility to their peacekeeping brethren worldwide, Tangedal wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. Norway's Department of Defense gave permission for the international marketing efforts, according to Tangedal, though a spokesman for Norway's current chief of defense says nobody has authority to give medals to foreigners.

Tangedal wrote that the Korean War is listed as a U.N. peace-keeping mission by the Foreign Department in Norway. However, the U.N. does not consider it one.

In fall 2004, a handful of Norwegian veterans met in southern Norway and took it one step further, deciding that the U.S. Korean War veterans should be included in the Nobel recognition, said Finn Andersen, 75, who is also a Bergen medals committee member.

The veterans extrapolated from two history books showing that the Korean War was conducted under the U.N. flag, Andersen said in a telephone interview. The group never consulted with the Nobel office to determine whether the Nobel prize applied to Korean War veterans, he said, or consulted with the U.N. to see whether the war was considered a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

"We made those decisions on our own," Andersen said by telephone.

An official working for Norway's chief of defense said Norwegian peacekeeping veterans were summoned Friday to a meeting this week and will be told to stop marketing the medal to Korean veterans worldwide.

To promote the medal, the U.S. Korean War Veterans Association highlighted its annual banquet in July by giving more than a dozen of the disputed Nobel medals to its officers, including William MacSwain, 75, of Texas. In exchange for the medals, the group offered free advertising in its magazine, Graybeards, to the Danish trading company commissioned by the Norwegian veterans to distribute the medals.

"I took the marketing documents at face value," said Lou Dechert, president of the Korean War Veterans Association.

The Danish company said it was simply acting on the wishes of the veterans.

"It is not our duty to get any permission," said Perser B. Poulsen, general manager for Skandinavisk Handels Kompagni in Aalborg, Denmark, which produced and marketed the medal and copies of the certificate and diploma.

Poulsen refused to disclose financial details and the company's arrangement with the veterans groups. But the company said at least 100 medal sets have been sold to U.S. Korean War veterans for prices from $115 to $165 since it began aggressively marketing last fall.

At least one Korean War veteran is not ready to give up on what he believes is his piece of the Nobel Prize.

Answering an ad in Graybeards, Jerry Crise, 75, of Palatine, Ill., plunked down $194 in March for the commemorative package. Crise said Friday that he has "high-level sources" assuring him that after all these years, Korean War veterans indeed have Nobel recognition.

"I know this award is legitimate," he said. "No dumb reporter is going to make me believe anything different."

E.A. Torriero writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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