Plastic surgery is a huge market in South Korea, where double eyelid surgery becomes a common graduation gift. Many patients visit South Korea for cosmetic procedures, especially since treatment care can be much less than in the US. The number of plastic surgery clinics has also doubled from 2004 to 2007. With increased demand, there is a growing need for cutting edge, innovative medical technology in the plastic surgery field.
The influence of the media is a contributing factor to the increase in demand.
Currently, countries from Japan to Singapore are flooded with South Korean hip-hop and pop acts, melodramatic soap operas and movies from horror flicks to romantic comedies. The popularity of Korean stars is establishing Korean ethnic features as a yardstick for beauty across the region.
Across Asia, South Korea is defined as cool. From fashion to music to film, the country of 48 million people is redefining style. As a notion of Korean beauty has become popularized by the country's exploding popular cultural exports, women from around the region -- and some men, too -- are flocking to Seoul to have their faces remodeled.
Apparently many women envy the facial features of popular Korean actresses. Requests for operations to create higher-bridged noses or to add a fold to eyelids to make the eyes look larger are typical. Surgeons report that women come in with photos of their favorite actresses – for instance Lee Young-ae of Jewel in the Palace - and request to look more like them.
Complicating the issue further, many Korean pop stars openly admit that they've had plastic surgery to become more attractive. This has led to widespread speculation in Asia that most Korean stars have gone under the knife. Purported before-and-after photos of Korean celebrities are widely available on the Internet. This public acknowledgement of vanity sends a subconscious message to impressionable fans that good looks, real or artificial, can win success and admiration. Korean pop culture has made plastic surgery fashionable. There is a popular website where people submit their photos and readers vote on who has the best looking face or “ool-jjang”. Websites like this are definitely keeping Seoul’s surgeons busy.
"A lot of my patients bring a picture of a Korean star from a magazine and say 'I want to look like that,' " says Chung Jong Pil, a surgeon who runs the Cinderella Plastic Surgery Clinic in a fashionable Seoul neighborhood.
Lee Bingping, a woman from Foshan in southern China who visited Dr. Jung's clinic last year, says many of the Korean features she admires may be the result of a surgeon's skill. "I think Korean actresses are pretty. Because of Korean plastic-surgery techniques, they have a very soft, graceful style," Ms. Lee says. "If you have the money and the resources, you should try to look as good as possible."
Just how common these procedures have become is hard to track but the number of surgeons performing image-enhancing work such as nose jobs and eye lifts has increased sharply. The Korean Society of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery, a professional group, says its membership has risen 85 percent to 960 since 2000. Another group, the Korean Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, lists 1,300 members. (California, with a population of 34 million, has 864 plastic surgeons, according to the state medical board.)
Popular Korean magazines would sometimes run full page articles on various clinics and the procedures they perform. Recently, a magazine featured an extensive layout entitled “Winter vacation, Plastic operation”. Cosmetic surgery has been so hyped in the press that it’s been marketed right into mainstream acceptance. Though the current statistics are hard to estimate, one article claimed that about 50 percent of Korean women in their 20’s have undergone some kind of cosmetic operation. Many patients are high school students. On the other side, surgeons estimate that at least one in 10 adults in Korea has received some form of surgical upgrade and even tots have their eyelids done.