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South Korea: Plastic Empire

Cosmetic Surgery is defined by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery as, “…procedures, techniques, and principles [that] are entirely focused on enhancing a patient’s appearance (Cosmetic Surgery vs Plastic Surgery). Unlike its counterpart, reconstructive/plastic surgery is one and the same; it is defined as a specialty to correct or reconstruct flaws and/or defects that someone may have due to birth, trauma, or sicknesses. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea ranked third, behind the United States and Mexico as the leading countries of total cosmetic procedures performed in 2015 (ISAPS). Despite outstanding figures, these numbers don’t take into account clinics or salons that don’t report their statistics accurately or at all. Many of these establishments are also privately owned and are not covered by South Korea’s national health insurance. Included in the summary of statistics that year, South Korea had the highest per capita ratio of procedures. At this rate, Korea is becoming the Mecca of all things plastic and patients are only getting younger by the years. Considering the popularization of cosmetic Surgery in South Korea, the immediate and long-lasting effects will undoubtedly damage past, present, and future generations via the foundation it began with along with its enforcer K-Pop, the physical risks that come with going under the knife, and the standardization of physical appearance which affects one’s identity and the idea of self.

Plastic surgery began in South Korea due to the Korean War that lasted from the 1950s to the early 1960s. American forces were occupied in Korea offering free reconstructive surgery to maimed Korean victims of the war. Chief Plastic Surgeon of the Marine Corps at the time, David Ralph Millard, is responsible for beginning the double-lid surgery craze. It was offered to comfort women and/or Korean women getting married to American soldiers in hopes that their rounder eyes would appeal more to American men. In 1964, Dr. Millard wrote, “… the absence of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental.” Millard expressed how Asian women without the fold were problematic and how Korean brides could be an issue to bring into America if they didn’t serve their men and families with American values. It was believed that “… unless [the wives were] properly Americanized, the women would ‘foreignize’ their husbands and children” (Lee 2015). If they looked the part, then it would be easier for these women to assimilate and/or integrate themselves into society. After many observations and many years, Korean men and women “…seek ideal beauty, now synonymous with ideal normalcy in their society, at great cost–creating a surreal, self-perpetuating cycle” that alone will affect them independently and as a whole ( Kurek 2015). Within the next couple of decades, the Korean “hallyu” or wave began and led the way to a new era of pop culture, one of the major industries being K-Pop.

This new wave of excitement and culture expanded and covered new lands all around the world. It brought in new types of beauty, music, fashion, film, ways of thinking, and more. K-pop began getting popular right after K-Dramas started circulating in foreign countries and catching other people’s attention. Slowly but surely, Korean culture was becoming more popular and prominent in popular culture around the world. South Korean artist, Psy, has “…the most-viewed video from a South Korean artist on YouTube with over 3.2 billion views” (Herman 2019). Since the Internet was readily available for most modern countries and people at this point, it was easier for Korean pop culture to get around and makes its trajectory toward small corners around the globe. Korean actors/actresses and singers became worldwide phenomenons. After reaching idol statuses and fame, “…many young K-pop stars and celebrities… openly admitted to their cosmetic procedures” and also “…[endorsed] and [appeared] in advertisements for Korean plastic surgery clinics through websites and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and YouTube (Wong 2018). K-Pop artists became what everyone wanted to look like, they were the epitome of beauty and fashion, and with that came an ideal that anyone normally needed to achieve. Ads of plastic surgery and commercials of K-Pop idols became plastered throughout the country and only reinforced the beauty standards that many young and impressionable adults tried reaching for. Before and after pictures of popular stars are extremely common and dispersed throughout the internet. Many also speculate who has had surgery and what type they’ve done. Something that isn’t noticed much is that South Korea is an electronically advanced city with digital ads placed on every block, in train stations, as billboards, and in many other well-populated areas. South Koreans, “ live in a state of intensive digital immersion” at almost all times, and commuting through the city seeing their favorite actors and artists advertising getting procedures, or telling them they’d look better with something done takes a toll on their psyche (Davies 2011). Owing to the fact that artists are adored and looked up to “…the idolization has inevitably spurred the desire for individuals to look as perfect as the celebrities (Wang 2015).

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Going under the knife comes with risks and from a country that boasts significant figures every year of those going under the knife, it’s bound to come with competition and reputation. This allows economic growth and chance for employment but it also once again raises concerns and fortifies the idealization of beauty standards. The South Korean government supports medical tourism which in return allows hospitals/clinics to experience high volumes of patients not only in their country but from all over the world. South Korea has a website,, that allows patients from all over the world the opportunity to look over package deals that include airfare, surgery, post-op appointments, and even tourism locations to help heal the body. Medical tourism in Korea is incredibly popular, in high demand, and still growing because of how cheap it is compared to surgeons in the West, it also helps that many families in other developed countries have disposable income to allow themselves the cost. To put it into perspective, “ in 2009, Korean medical tourism provided services for around 60,000 medical tourists and in 2017 the total number of international patients was 320,000 (Kim 2019). Many clinics and medical centers cater extremely well to foreigners and with word of mouth and excellent reviews, popularity, and demand have risen exponentially. With this comes many physical risks that can damage those looking to get work done or that have already had something happen to them. There are cases of many unregistered clinics/salons that still conduct and carry out procedures, without a full understanding of the medical processes and/or steps. This carries risks of botched surgeries or procedures taking place that can damage patients physically and mentally. In South Korea, it is not regulated that surgeons need to have a specific specialty or practice. Surgeons are allowed by law to conduct a C-Section on a woman if needed despite not knowing how. Side effects and infection are also common and can come about from unhygienic environments that thousands of foreign patients contract during travel. Unfortunately, all of these issues are very well-known, but because of a lack of data from establishments reporting their numbers, the exact number nor an estimation can be known of just how many patients it has affected throughout the years. There has been zero government reform to this day and many have suffered the consequences of those not willing to perform these procedures the correct way. The success of medical tourism and it’s still growing high demand is all due to advertising, the media, and economic growth that only continues to feed the demand.

The industry most definitely has had its economic pros and has made millions of people happy, but nonetheless, it has many negative effects on the people who have had surgery done. Lack or loss of identity, feeling inferior, and self-esteem issues are only some of the negative, mental, and emotional issues that many must cope with after their big changes. Radical physical changes are sometimes very hard for some to accept. According to research, social appearance evaluations affect self-esteem, and low appearance satisfaction can lead to low self-esteem (Yoon 2015). Many people who have had procedures done at a young age end up having mixed feelings about it, they express not regretting the procedure, only thinking about it more deeply before going through with it. It is also difficult to regain one’s identity after a procedure, especially when many have similar features. South Korea’s collectivist society forces everyone to endure and conform to beauty standards and ideals. As time passes and many women start looking the same and are even called “sisters” because their cosmetic surgeon has the tendency to leave many with similar features, having a ‘unique” look only gets harder and harder. These beauty standards that have been set disallow women to have the liberty in choosing different looks or changing something about themselves that isn’t an exact replica of another woman or an idol. The suffocation of being forced to fit into a mold and being told every day that who they are isn’t enough or isn’t the right type of beauty produces resentment. This resentment follows and builds among women where therein they must look within themselves and try to accept a changed self. Younger patients have an even harder time with the mental outcomes of getting work done at a young age. Korean idols are only getting bigger and getting more fame, this is allowing younger girls that view them to want to change themselves at an even younger rate. Many young girls have also been asked what their plans are regarding cosmetic surgery if their parents can’t afford it and many express that it won’t matter, they will get work done at some point even if they have to work a little more diligently or for a longer period of time. The long-term psychological effects of those who have had procedures done and proceed to have children thereafter are unknown or there is no data on it; they have zero clue as to how they’ll react to the genetic features of their own kids with their pre-surgery features. What will be of the children then?

Globally, many countries have their obsessions with beauty and/or altering themselves to be “better.” Whether it is for a bigger bottom or chest, higher cheekbones, a V-cut jawline, or a tinier nose, countries have made a global business on the dissatisfaction of appearance in both men and women. South Korea is trailing behind major countries in the number of procedures done yearly. The obsession and unintended normalcy of cosmetic surgery have created pressure from family, friends, and professional prospects. There are many factors as to why people want to get work done, whether it’s for status, success, or relationships; it does not change the fact that the pressure and beauty ideals/standards everyone is trying to meet are going to undoubtedly create long-lasting impacts that the world may not see until years down the road.

Works Cited

  1. “Cosmetic Surgery vs Plastic Surgery: Cosmetic vs Plastic Surgeons.” American Board Cosmetic Surgery, 4 Sept. 2019,
  2. Davies, Gloria, and Gil-Soo Han. ‘Korean cosmetic surgery and digital publicity: beauty by Korean design.’ Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, Nov. 2011, p. 146+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019
  3. Herman, Tamar. “BLACKPINK’s ‘Ddu-Du Ddu-Du’ Becomes Most-Viewed Music Video From a K-Pop Group on YouTube.” Billboard, 23 Jan. 2019,
  4. “ISAPS Plastic Surgery Statistics: Global Plastic Surgery Statistics.” ISAPS,
  5. Kim, et al. “Critical Success Factors of Medical Tourism: The Case of South Korea.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 6 Dec. 2019,
  6. Kurek, Laura. ‘Eyes wide cut: the American origins of Korea’s plastic surgery craze: South Korea’s obsession with cosmetic surgery can be traced back to an American doctor, raising uneasy questions about beauty standards.’ The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, 2015. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.
  7. Lee, Claire. “Uncovering History of Double Eyelid Surgery.” The Korea Herald, The Korea Herald, 11 Sept. 2015,
  8. Livingston, Amanda (2015) ‘Plastic Paradise: The Trends & Effects of Cosmetic Surgery Tourism in Economically Growing Countries,’ The Cohen Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 2.
  9. Wang, Yuqing. ProQuest LLC, 2015, p. 43.
  10. Wong, Ka Yee Janice. “No More Taboo: Discursive Tactics for Navigating the Taboo of Cosmetic Surgery – Ka Yee Janice Wong, 2018.” SAGE Journals, 18 Dec. 2018,
  11. Yoon, S., Kim, Y.A. Cosmetic Surgery and Self-esteem in South Korea: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Aesth Plast Surg (2019) doi:10.1007/s00266-019-01515-1

#heathcare #medical #medicalcare #pharmaceuticals #healthcareprofessional #nurses #healthprofessionals

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