Global Report: Made in South Korea

Considered by many to be the plastic surgery capital of the world, we explore South Korea’s controversial relationship with cosmetic enhancement.

In recent years, South Korea has surpassed the United States to claim the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world, with Seoul’s famed Gangnam district boasting an estimated 500 cosmetic enhancement centres. This trending pursuit of perfection is taken so seriously in South Korea that it has created a multi- billion dollar industry. While official statistics are hard to come by, it is estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent of Korean women have undergone some form of cosmetic enhancement. According to Gallup Korea, this gure is highest among younger women, with around 60 per cent of females in their twenties having experienced plastic surgery. Men make up 15 per cent of the total client base.

Such statistics have been linked to the increased accessibility of plastic surgery clinics, with 1,414 registered clinics being noted across South Korea as of September 2017. This excludes major hospitals, dermatology clinics and dental clinics that also o er cosmetic procedures.

Throughout Seoul, enhancement is supported by pervasive advertisements engul ng billboards, subway stations and public transport routes, as well as Korean Popular culture. K-Pop is becoming an increasingly prominent feature in society and its stars, with their anime-like features, are widely perceived as icons of beauty.

To emulate their idols’ looks, young Koreans are seeking V-line jaw surgery, rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty, in addition to a range of ‘petit procedures’ like skin whitening, anti-wrinkle injections and dermal fillers.

Unlike many western cultures where admitting to undergoing plastic surgery could still be viewed as taboo, many people in South Korea view enhancement in a
more trivial light. ‘So many people have surgery, it’s just like wearing makeup,’ a young Korean man
told Al Jazeera in its 2015 report on the country’s plastic surgery boom. ‘Plastic surgery is natural and harmless because everyone does it.’ This attitude is echoed by a young woman who recently told Harper’s Bazaar that ‘double eyelid surgery is so common people don’t even call it surgery anymore’.

Cosmetic gifting

Historically, having natural beauty was like winning the biological jackpot. However, as modern technology has progressed, a level playing eld has been created where anyone can alter their appearance once they possess the necessary nances. Because children in South Korea are commonly considered to be an embodiment of their parents’ standing, they are often pushed to excel in the elds of academia and appearance.

As part of her 2015 investigation into Korean plastic surgery trends for The New Yorker, Patricia Marx noted how ‘a typical high school graduation gift for a Korean teenager is either a nose job or a blepharoplasty’. Indeed, it is not uncommon for parents to gift their children a trip to a cosmetic clinic during the golden period between the completion of high school and the commencement of university, a time which allows young adults to enter college life with a new group of friends that accept their re ned jawline, wide eyes or narrow nose as natural blessings, rather than the result of human intervention.

Dr Rhee Se Whan, a plastic surgeon who operates in Seoul, told APP: ‘During school holidays, half the class would come in and get surgery done and when they go back to school, their friends would see that they’ve become prettier so in the next break you would have the other half of the class coming in.’

The pertinence of cosmetic surgery also extends to the working world, where many patients seek enhancement to boost their employment prospects in a competitive job market. It is common practice for employers to demand photos be attached to resumes as an easy way of culling prospective applicants.

‘In Korea, for a woman to be capable, it’s not enough just to have a certain skill set. You have to be beautiful as well,’ Sharon Hejiin Lee, an assistant professor in the department of social and cultural analysis at New York University, explained to The Atlantic. ‘After the Korean economic crisis in 1997, competition for jobs led to the surgery boom; people trying to get a leg up in the job market any way they can.’


The draw of Seoul’s cosmetic clinics is not just felt by domestics. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of foreign patients having cosmetic surgery in South Korea has increased by more than 17 times since 2009. This gure almost doubled between 2013 and 2016, moving from 24,075 to 47,881. Such a trend is largely attributed to the cost of surgery in South Korea being approximately one third cheaper than in the US, and the belief Korean practitioners are highly innovative due to the large volume of surgeries they perform.

This spike in cosmetic tourism, which comes mostly from China, Japan and the United States, has generated so much interest that, at one point, Seoul’s Incheon airport considered building a cosmetic surgery centre inside one of its terminals. The proposal was later scrapped following opposition from doctors.

Many medical tourists use agencies like Doc nder to manage their international enhancement experience. This site helps match tourists to procedures, recovery spaces and translators who will accompany them to consultations and treatments.


It is worth noting that the widespread pursuit of aesthetic perfection in South Korea is not without its critics.

In April this year, the Asia Institute and the Korean Peace Movement organised a march through Gangnam to protest against plastic surgery, something the group views as a form of ‘cultural violence against women’.

Speaking to The Telegraph (UK) prior to the march, Emanuel Pastreich, head of the Asia Institute, said: ‘Korean society has become completely distorted by this rush
to undergo surgery and, speaking personally, I believe it is very sad that it has shifted to the point that women are seen merely as sex objects that have to undergo the scalpel to be perfect.

‘The way that women look has become commercialised and commodi ed here, and that is completely alien to traditional Korean culture. Korean culture used to place importance on what was “invisible” in society, like righteous behaviour, lial piety, concern for one’s family and the community; but that has been replaced with this obsession with appearances.’

Following a barrage of complaints from commuters, the South Korean government has also vowed to ban plastic surgery ads from the capital’s metro stations by 2022.
According to The Korea Times, criticism of the ads ‘which promote what many people believe are distorted images of how women should look’ has been increasing since 2015, re ecting the population’s increased awareness of gender issues.

Seoul Metro has promised to ban its advertising agencies from buying material designed to promote cosmetic enhancement and says it will instead focus on displaying ads that support culture, the arts and public campaigns.

While placing restrictions on advertising may impact the daily experience of Seoul’s commuting population, it could be argued that in a culture where the concepts of beauty and success are so heavily intertwined, the large scale pursuit of perfection will continue to thrive. AMP