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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 11:34 GMT
The price of beauty in South Korea
Charles Scanlon
By Charles Scanlon
BBC News, South Korea

The South Korean capital, Seoul, has a reputation as the place to go for a nip or a tuck. But despite being an unregulated industry, thousands seem willing to risk injury in pursuit of a perfect body.

Peer pressure is encouraging young South Koreans to have surgery
Even the most ardent patriot would not describe South Korean cities as beautiful.

A dreary expanse of undistinguished concrete blocks does little to inspire the first time visitor.

But all is not lost for those on the look out for aesthetic attractions.

South Korea is in the grip of a beauty craze
South Korean women have a reputation as the most striking in Asia.

And the men are also shaping up. Korean actors are currently the region's premier heartthrobs.

The Korean look, with high cheekbones and sculptured features is all the rage from Shanghai to Singapore.

South Korea is in the grip of a beauty craze.


The streets of Seoul are thick with impeccably groomed young women in miniskirts, seemingly immune to the sub zero temperatures of the Korean winter.

Women of marriageable age are under intense pressure to look their best at all times and one of the consequences has been an explosion in plastic surgery.

A woman's magazine recently advised its readers to spend 30% of their incomes on looking good.

The reason, you will end up with a better and richer husband and that has to be a sensible investment.


The buzz word these days is ul-jjang, literally "best face".

Women, and some men as well, send posed photographs to websites, where they can be ranked on their looks.

By conservative estimates, 50% of South Korean women in their 20s have had some form of cosmetic surgery
The winners aspire to jobs in modelling and acting.

That spirit of competition is keeping the country's thousands of plastic surgeons hard at work.

It is no longer enough just to correct perceived flaws. The trick these days is to stand out from the crowd and be the envy of your friends.

By conservative estimates, 50% of South Korean women in their 20s have had some form of cosmetic surgery. And in a recent poll, 70% of men said they would also consider surgical improvements.

There is little stigma or shame attached, many of the operations have come to seem routine.


Kim Hee-soon is fairly typical. An impossibly slender 28-year-old shipping clerk.

She began with a double eyelid operation when she went to university. It is the most common procedure for Koreans, designed to make the eyes look bigger.

Pleased with the result she went back later to ask for a more statuesque nose.

It is a highly lucrative business and everyone wants a slice of the action
But the surgeon had a suggestion of his own, an operation to make her chin more shapely and cutting from inside the mouth he inserted an implant.

Three years later, she still feels pain and discomfort, especially when the weather is cold.

But despite the experience she is now considering breast implants.

That surgeon, like so many others practising here, turned out to be unqualified for the job, but he aggressively denied anything was wrong with his handiwork.


South Korea has just 1,200 certified plastic surgeons. Many thousands of others are operating without proper qualifications.

It is a highly lucrative business and everyone wants a slice of the action.

One qualified surgeon told me he knew of psychiatrists doing liposuction and radiologists performing double eyelid operations.

The results are predictable enough.

For those who want an even cheaper job, there is always the massage woman at the local sauna who is handy with the botox injection and the scalpel
Cosmetic surgeons tell hushed stories of botched noses, damaged faces and women who cannot close their eyes at all after too much of the lid is cut away.

Some of the practitioners have no grasp of basic surgery. Patients asking for liposuction are literally risking their lives on the operating table.

Qualified operators say their old classmates from med school constantly badger them for lessons on lucrative cosmetic operations.

The result has been a dramatic drop in the price of plastic surgery, making it available to all. A second eyelid for the price of a night out.

And for those who want an even cheaper job, there is always the massage woman at the local sauna who is handy with the botox injection and the scalpel.

Amazingly, malpractice suits are few and far between, and the damages paid to victims are derisory by international standards.

Most complaints are settled quietly out of court in deals brokered by the consumer association.

The certified plastic surgeons are pushing for tougher regulation and more accountability, but they are up against a powerful lobby of doctors who fight any restrictions on the right to practice.

Secret filming

Until recently, the media has shown little interest in investigating the abuses.

But in one recent case, an undercover TV crew filmed a liposuction operation at the surgery of a gynaecologist.

The operation was performed by the salesman from the company that sold the machine. At one point he invited the gynaecologist to hold the suction tube, to groans of pain from the unfortunate patient.

The government seems more interested in keeping the doctors happy than in protecting the public as a whole.

And in the frenzy to look their best South Korean women, as well as increasing numbers of men, are still prepared to take the risk.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 3 February, 2005, at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: South Korea
14 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Korea
22 Jan 05 |  Country profiles


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