Episode Spotlight: The Korean Surgeon


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“The Korean Surgeon” (#105, 5×09)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, November 23rd, 1976
Written by Bill Idelson
Directed by Gene Reynolds

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and B.J. plot to have a friendly North Korean surgeon assigned to the 4077th.

In many ways, this episode felt like it belonged in the first three seasons, when Hawkeye and Trapper were so often plotting against Frank and Margaret who in turn were suspicious of and spying on Hawkeye and Trapper. There’s not a lot of humor in the episode aside from Frank’s almost abduction by North Koreans. And it completely glossed over what could have made for an incredibly interesting episode.

What struck me the most was how nobody seemed to care why or how Dr. Syn Paik, who attended medical school in Chicago, ended up serving as a surgeon in the North Korean army. We don’t even know if he was born in North Korea or the United States. If he was born in North Korea, presumably he traveled to the United States prior to the outbreak of the Korean War and returned before the war broke out. He was probably drafted and had no option but to serve.

But if he was born in the United States or immigrated there from North Korea, that would mean he would have had to intentionally travel back to North Korea to serve in the war. Paik has an accent, although not a thick one, and he specifically states “I’m a surgeon. University of Chicago.” He doesn’t say he was a surgeon. He says he is a surgeon, as if he was still employed by the University of Chicago.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode The Korean Surgeon showing Frank.
Frank finally realizes he’s been captured by the enemy.

Admittedly, I may be spending too much time analyzing Paik’s character. But I think if it had been revealed that Paik had voluntarily left the United States to serve in the North Korean army, it could have changed the entire episode. Not only would Frank and Margaret have considered him the enemy but they would have called him a traitor as well, even if he hadn’t been an American citizen.

How would Hawkeye and B.J. reacted? What about Colonel Potter? And what of the North Korean soldiers Paik had operated on and sent back to the fighting? They could have wounded or killed soldiers that were sent to the 4077th. There could have been wounded soldiers recovering in post-op who had fought with soldiers Paik sent back to the front.

Time and again episodes of M*A*S*H drove home the point that the doctors of the 4077th saved lives regardless of which side of the war the wounded were from. Hawkeye and the other doctors did everything they could to repair soldiers and send them back out to kill. Forcing them to come face to face with an enemy doctor who did the same thing could have raised some very tough emotional questions.

That probably would have been a lot to ask of M*A*S*H. But thinking about what could have been leaves me feeling like this episode was just kind of bland. Yes, it showed Frank to be the racist, narrow-minded buffoon he was but it didn’t cover any new ground.

Plus, it is hard to believe that even Hawkeye would suggest trying to get a North Korean surgeon assigned to the 4077th. It is completely unbelievable that Radar and Sparky could actually get it done. And it is a great injustice to Colonel Potter as well as Frank and Margaret to suggest that simply shaving Paik’s goatee was enough to disguise him.

I also wondered why Paik would bother telling Radar and Klinger that the soldiers they were helping were North Koreans? If he thought they were so dangerous and that the best way to deal with them was to give them what they wanted, why not just keep quiet and let that happen? Why risk Radar or Klinger getting scared or flustered and tipping off the North Koreans that they’d been discovered?

13 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Korean Surgeon”

  1. I think Dr. Paik studied and got his degree at the University of Chicago, and then continued to practice in Chicago – but maybe I’m wrong. I always felt that at the start of the war he went home in a patriotic manner, and never realized he would be fighting his adopted country. Much less become their prisoner.

    1. He could have been in the states after WW2, before the two Koreas were established. Or his family may have lived in the north, and he wanted to be near them. A lot of possibilities.

  2. The US has some of the best, if not THE best, med schools in he world. It is not at all uncommon for students from other countries to come here to study, even do their residency, then return to their countries to practice.

  3. He could have gone to the US after Korea was freed from Japanese occupation; he would have been born in the North before it was North Korea. I do wonder why he didn’t defect since he was otherwise sympathetic.

  4. Yes this episode was filled with plot holes most of which had to do with Dr Paik. If he was supposed to be brought to a POW camp after recovering from surgery, why was it so easy for him to escape from the truck? Why weren’t there MPs guarding him and why was he wearing what looked like Trapper’s old blue robe? Also, why was he so adamant about operating on Americans? He said he worked at Cook County Hospital. Why not just stay there if you want to operate on Americans? Why didn’t that make them suspicious of him?

    I also think it was strange how Hawkeye and BJ wanted to help him for no other reason than he seemed to know something about surgery. They had no way of knowing whether he really knew how to operate other than a few technical things he said referencing arteries and such. I’m sure Frank could also say such things, but nobody would consider him a great surgeon. In fact Dr. Paik was wrong about needing to amputate a patient’s leg which would seem to suggest that his medical knowledge wasn’t even current. Why would they want a doctor whose knowledge was out of date? In my mind this is dangerously close to helping the enemy if for no other reason than Hawk and BJ had a hand in helping a POW escape, impersonate an American officer, and have contact with wounded American soldiers and access to medical supplies. That’s rather a naive approach on their part and could have turned out horribly.

    Of course there are nice North Koreans but how would an American GI who had just watched his friends killed by North Koreans feel knowing a North Korean doctor was putting him under to cut him open? He may not be aware of it, but that’s unethical too.

    I also think it was too easy for Radar to get him set up to work there. What did Sparky think they were doing? And it was kinda crappy for Hawk and BJ to make Radar stick his neck out for something the army would absolutely see as treason. It just seemed like a really selfish act on their part. The whole thing kinda stinks and was far too bleeding heart in a lot of ways. I’m not sure we needed to be reminded that there are good people in every war on both sides. Unfortunately if you start picking and choosing who you want to fight against, that kinda defeats the purpose.

  5. Is the fact Colonel Potter as well as Frank and Margaret fail to see through Paik’s disguise a slight satire on the Western cliche/ignorance “You all look the same to me” regarding Asian people?
    Or am I giving the writers too much credit?

  6. Don’t forget, there was no North Korea until 1945. Korea was ruled by Japan from 1910 on. Dr. Paik could have studied medicine in Korea, furthered his studies in Japan and then gone further in the US. Now the problem becomes the fact that Dr. Paik would have had to been serving in the north of Korea when WWII ended. The Communists took over soon after the war when the Red Army entered the peninsula. Otherwise, Paik would have voluntarily joined the Korea. People’s Army. Not likely for a US trained surgeon.

  7. “I’m a surgeon. University of Chicago.”

    He’s saying he went to Med school there…not that he is (or was) employed by the school.

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