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Why tourists flock to Seoul for a new face

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When Singapore resident Jennifer Lim, 28, got fed up with people asking her whether she was tired, even when she was energetically wide awake, she knew it was time for a makeover.

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When Singapore resident Jennifer Lim, 28, got fed up with people asking her whether she was tired, even when she was energetically wide awake, she knew it was time for a makeover.

“I have very sleepy and droopy eyes. Friends always ask me, ‘Did you sleep last night?'” Lim said, lifting her eyelids to show what a horizontal stitch above the eye line would look like.

Creating double eyelids is a popular surgery that, in effect, makes Asians’ eyes look rounder and wider. “It’s just not a good feeling, I want self-confidence,” Lim said.

To that end, Lim went on line searching for doctors abroad. After several weeks of Web surfing and chatting, she got together with three other women who shared similar interests. They agreed to meet in Seoul, South Korea, for a two-week adventure: one week for surgery and recovery, then a second week for after-care and shopping.

Lim and Elaine Teo, 34, both Singaporeans, traveled together. Two other women in their 20s, who did not want to be named, flew in from Indonesia and California.

“Yeah, we’ll all be ugly and all swelled up after it’s done,” Teo said, giggling in the pre-surgery room of the BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic. “But we can laugh at each other, all bandaged up together in our hotel rooms.”

She chose a “fat graft” procedure that removes fat from the stomach that is later injected on the forehead and sunken cheek fold to make a fuller profile. Lim opted for a chin implant and narrowing of her nose, in addition to double eyelids.

The clinic is one of Korea’s largest, in the heart of Seoul’s posh Kangnam shopping area where plastic surgery clinics are easily found on almost every other block. More than half of the nation’s 699 plastic surgery hospitals have opened business in this district.

But the economic downturn has resulted in fewer domestic patients in recent months. So Dr. Kim Byung-Kun and his team of 14 surgeons are instead focusing on the larger Asian market, boosted by the Korean government’s drive to lure more foreign medical tourists. Kim opened three sub-clinics in China and he travels regularly to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore to lure new patients through consultation seminars. “After work, I respond to over 100 e-mail inquires from all over the world every night,” he claims in pride.

To jump on the bandwagon, other clinics are following suit, hiring Japanese, Chinese and English-speaking translators. Hotels and tour agencies are getting together with popular clinics to offer “medical beauty package tours” that consist of a clinic trip, spa programs, shopping and sightseeing.

Plastic surgery in South Korea had already been competitively priced, even before the local currency’s recent free fall made the cost even more attractive for people from other countries.

But that’s not the only appeal. “Asians prefer Asian doctors because what they want is different from Caucasians,” Kim said, while stitching the edge of Lim’s nostrils in one of the 12 surgery rooms in full operation at the BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic. “In America and Europe, patients usually want to reduce the hump or the tip size of their noses. But Asians want the opposite, higher and sharper noses.”

His hospital, an eight-story building, performs 60 to 70 operations on average, everyday.

Korea’s robust plastic surgery industry stems from “the Confucian tradition of considering appearance as an important factor in judging a person,” said Hyun Taik-Soo, professor of sociology at Korea University.

When applying for jobs in Korea, attaching a head-shot photo of oneself on the resume is a requirement. Some companies even hire physiognomists — who attempt to judge a person’s character through facial features — to sit in on recruiting interviews.

The social obsession with appearance is often denounced in local news media editorials, branding Korea the “Kingdom of Plastic Surgery.” Numbers prove the phenomenon. More than 80 percent of job recruitment executives said they view appearance as an important factor in making hiring decisions, according to an online JobKorea survey of 761 recruitment executives.

In another survey, by www.career.co.kr, 27.4 percent of job seekers answered that they think they were rejected at a job interview because of their looks, and 73.4 percent said they have considered plastic surgery in order to try to better their chances the next time. “We have come to an age where appearance is an asset. And plastic surgery is the fast track investment for a higher return,” professor Hyun said.

Nip and tuck is such a common practice in Korea that surveys show 30 percent of Korean women aged 20 to 50, or about 2.4 million women, have had some kind of procedure, according to ARA Consulting, a medical marketing consulting firm.

Parents often present the experience as a high-school graduation gift and college graduates save money to go under the knife before getting into the job market. With the recent “dong-an” craze, or obsession with looking young, middle-age men and women spend thousands of dollars to iron out their wrinkles through fat grafts, botox injections or laser treatments.

Such continuously surging demand has boosted Korea’s plastic surgery industry, where only the top 1 percent of medical school graduates become plastic surgeons, Kim said.

Meanwhile, one week after the procedure, Lim and her new friends were in the waiting room ready to take their bandages off. “We walked around all day yesterday at Hong-Dae … in our bandaged masks,” Lim said, referring to a hip neighborhood for the younger crowd. “But it was alright. In a foreign country, no one knows who we are.”

Coming out of the doctor’s office bandage-free, they sprinted straight to the clinic’s ladies’ room to find a private place to mingle and assess their new looks in amazement.

“I can’t believe it. Look, I look so cute,” Lim said, touching her new chin as Teo gave an approving look in the mirror. “Now, we’ll go shopping without our masks.”

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About the author


Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.