Wednesday, June 11, 1997 | 10:11 a.m.
PYONGTAEK, KOREA -- A country's reputation in America can be trashed or trumpeted by just one popular movie or TV series. For South Korea, which has spent millions trying to boost its image, the hit sitcom "MASH" distorted the views of a generation of Americans.
So when the US Army yesterday closed the mobile hospital on which the TV series was based, the ceremony drew mixed emotions. Several "MASH" actors were on hand to mark the event, mingling with teary-eyed dignitaries. But after a military band played the show's theme, Korean reporters aggressively questioned the actors about the sitcom's negative portrayal of Koreans.
With many Americans knowing little more about this US ally than Hawkeye, Hotlips, or desperate Korean refugees, South Korea has been eager to make sure outsiders know it has come a long way since the 1950-53 Korean War. It has transformed itself from a poor, devastated country to an Asian economic powerhouse.
"It's a very unknown country," says Lee Tae-ha, president of the Seoul branch of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. A survey his firm conducted in 1995 found that most people in six major countries thought Korea was a "tropical country with lots of bicycles in the street."
Hoping to counter this impression, Koreans have launched a sustained campaign to educate the world about their country and often proudly brag, to the bewilderment of visitors, that "Korea has four seasons!"
Edelman has been hired by The Korea International Trade Association to help promote foreign investment and the high quality of Korean products. The Seoul government has increased its sponsorship of performance and art shows that tour the world. This year, independent Korean sponsors launched Arirang TV, an English/Japanese language cable channel about Korea.
And ever since the 1992 Los Angeles riots intensified animosity between the Korean-American and African-American community, the South Korean government began inviting African-American leaders and students here to promote understanding.
And South Korea often vies for spots in international organizations. In the past year it has joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and won co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup soccer games - two trophies in the industrialized world.
But despite this heightened exposure, South Koreans often appear insecure about their place in the world and act as if they have something to prove. Medal winners at international sporting competitions become front-page heroes at home and there is a national obsession for a Korean to win the Nobel Prize (none has won one yet).
Meanwhile, Koreans who have "succeeded" abroad are wildly hyped. Lee Seung-hee, the first Korean-American to be a Playboy magazine centerfold, received a royal welcome last month, even though Playboy is banned here for being offensive.
Image shaped by a show
Hollywood's most popular image of Korea was born when "MASH" producer Larry Gelbart, visited Korea in 1950 as a writer for Bob Hope. Wanting to show the real-life nobility, absurdity, and grittiness of life in a war zone, Gelbart wrote the TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983 and is still shown in reruns and dozens of languages around the world.
The wisecracking but dedicated doctors and nurses portrayed on TV were known to break regulations to save someone's life or just have fun on the front lines of the Korean War. The show was also antiwar. And for many who watched it in the 1970s, Korea might as well have been Vietnam.
Today, almost 15 years after the final episode of the most popular TV series in US history aired, reruns are attracting a new generation of fans.
But to Koreans, the show is a demeaning portrayal that makes them look poor and cultureless. When American Forces Korea's TV station began showing reruns in 1991, Korean complaints of it being racially insensitive forced it off the air after two months.
"The show itself is funny," says Lew Seok-choon, a sociologist at Yonsei University in Seoul. But Koreans in the show are portrayed as "irrational" and uncivilized. "MASH" "doesn't recognize the historical richness of Korean culture," says Professor Lew.
Gelbart defends his portrayal of the era. "People were destitute. You could sell your daughter...." And he notes that the character Major Frank Burns, nicknamed "ferret face," "was always taken to task for racism."
But in the end, Korean products - Hyundai cars, Goldstar microwaves, and Samsung electronics - may do the most to change perceptions about Korea and where it is going. So may visiting tourists.
"MASH is the only kind of exposure I had to anything Korean," says Mary Belgue, a tourist here.
"I'm staggered," says Gelbart. "The first time I came here there were wrecked tanks in the street and the buildings were leveled." Today, he says, "It's magic."
Today's MASH doctors basically run "a community emergency room," says Ed Falta, a surgeon wearing blue surgical garb. Most of the time, they deliver babies and stitch up cuts for the 8,000 or so people at Camp Humphreys, just south of Seoul.
The deactivation of MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is really a minor footnote. Advances in technology have made it possible to give emergency surgery even closer to the front line, forcing a reorganization of medical units.
Now, when they're not herding tourists around Panmunjom at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), American front-line troops spend most of their time watching North Koreans through binoculars.
Videos, a gym, and what Sports Illustrated magazine calls "the most dangerous golf course on Earth," serve for entertainment. Some 37,000 US troops remain in South Korea, 44 years after the fighting ended.